It's Hard to Talk About Mental Health as an Asian American

Going against the cultural pressures of collectivism

I’ve always felt that mental health was a taboo topic. Even when it came to emotions, there ones that were “okay” to show but others that weren’t:

  • Angry? That’s normal.

  • Happy? Show more.

  • Sad? Hide it.

One of the reasons I felt this way was because of my pride. Talking about pain was a sign of vulnerability and I didn’t want others to think that I was weak.

Another factor was the pressures I felt as a male to “man up.” Men didn’t cry. Men shoved their emotions down their throats and bottled them up tight. Strength was the ability to endure anything and the less pain you showed the better.

But one of the biggest factors was the cultural pressures I faced growing up in a collectivistic family.

The Pressures of Collectivism

Within collectivism, the three values of prioritizing community, selflessness, and group achievements manifested into two specific forms of cultural pressures that made it difficult to talk about mental health:

  1. Dishonoring my parents

  2. Not wanting to burden others

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Dishonoring My Parents

Growing up, I was very much aware that my actions could affect the reputation of my parents. This was especially true at church and so I was always cautious about how I behaved.

On Sundays I made sure to wear my cleanest clothes and to pay attention during the sermons. I tried my best to memorize the assigned Bible verses and to be engaged during Sunday School. I went out of my way to bow to all of my parent’s friends to show respect. I did all of these things because I knew that the teachers, the pastors, and the parents all would all talk with each other about how I was behaving. And the better I behaved, the better the reputation my parents had.

From a mental health perspective, this was a difficult cultural dynamic to navigate. Not only did it feel like I was constantly being watched 24/7, I never really felt safe talking about my problems.

I was afraid that if I shared what I was going through at home, it would reflect poorly on my parents and that they would be perceived as terrible parents. I was also worried about how they would react. Sharing personal family information with outsiders was huge violation of trust.

Because of the collectivistic values of filial piety and prioritizing the family over myself, I felt pressure to prioritize protecting my parent’s reputation rather than getting help.

Not Wanting to Burden Others

Another core value of collectivism is to extol selflessness and to place others first. Because of this, I did not want to share what I was going through because I felt like I was burdening others.

It felt wrong to ask for help and I was ashamed that I needed to rely on someone else.

In order to cope with the pain, I ended up creating a vicious cycle of minimizing my problems and created immense Emotional Debt that would randomly erupt and get unloaded to the people around me.

For the longest time I had no idea that this was an unhealthy pattern.

I thought bottling up my emotions was normal. This is how people dealt with pain. I thought I was doing something good by keeping all of my problems to myself because talking to someone about it would just be selfish. I shouldn’t burden others with my problems. I just needed to get stronger.

Seeking Help is Okay

One of the biggest lessons I had to learn as an adult was that seeking help was okay. I had to learn that sharing my problems wasn’t a burden to others. That there are people in my life that I can trust and rely on.

One of the tools I used to overcome this cultural pressure was therapy because it gave me something I never had before: confidentiality.

Previously, my parents were connected in some shape or form to all of my social circles. From school to church to tennis club, the Korean American community is incredibly well connected. In light of this, I was aware that anything I said or did had the potential of dishonoring my parents.

The only place I could truly feel safe was in therapy because my therapist was professionally and legally bound to keep everything we discussed private. (As a side note, this is also one of the many reasons why there is such a strong resistance to therapy in collectivistic cultures.)

Confidentiality provided me the freedom to process everything I was struggling with without the fear dishonoring my parents and affecting their reputation. This laid the relational foundations of trust that I was later able to build on with other people.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you find it difficult to talk about mental health?

  2. What are some personal reasons why?

  3. What are some cultural reasons why?