The Stigma of Mental Illness in Asian Cultures

Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Asian people do not discuss mental illness. While “Asian” is a broad term that cannot possibly encompass all the nationalities and ethnicities of the Asian continent, this is a solid fact in the most prominent cultures: China, Japan, Korea, and–slightly less prominent, but more relevant to me–Indonesia.

To be mentally ill in an Indonesian family is a weakness–shameful and embarrassing. To have that sort of “invisible” disability–something that could, in some cases, cripple someone to the point of being unable to give even the illusion of functioning like a neurotypical human being–means you’ve tainted the bloodline. In Indonesia–a country whose culture is a conglomeration of Islam, Buddhism, Catholicism, and Confucianism–familial ties are what drive society. The cultural subjugation of women is just another layer of shame that drives Asian women to ignore or even hide their symptoms until it’s almost too late. Depression, though, is what really holds the stigma.

I suspected it–and, somewhere deep in me, I knew it–but I never said it, my mother never said it, and I carried on with my slipping grades and dirty room. Even now, after months of therapy and antidepressants, the word “depression” was never used in direct reference to myself until I forced it out a few days ago, when I asked my mother her opinion on the stigma of mental illness in our culture:

“What do you mean?” She had asked.

I remember hesitating–steeling myself. “I mean, you know, mental illnesses.” She still seemed confused. I reached in myself and found the part of me that had learned to open up and be unapologetically fierce. “You know, like, well, my…depression.”

She blinked, and said, “Oh. Right. Well, I know what you mean. I agree.”

This journey is an eternal one. The fact that it took me four years to even say the word in front of my mother–the most important person in my life–because of my mortification at feeling like such a broken disappointment is a true testament to the damage this stigma enforces. We, as the Asian race, need to talk about depression. I don’t care about the years of cultural and social issues that hold this discussion back. The disparity between the number of American born Asians who have reported having depression and the suicide rates of American born Asians is staggering and, frankly, shocking. We need to unlearn our shame, and learn to seek help before it’s almost too late. I don’t want future generations of Asian American children to ever have to feel as isolated and helpless as I felt. I want to open up this particular can of worms, I want to stand up, and I want people to hear my voice and the voices of all the Asian American lives lost to depression when we say this isn’t a weakness, it is a biological illness, and we need to do something about it.

Leave a Comment