Why are young Asian-Americans killing themselves?


Katherine Tong recalls sitting in a church pew in 2013, listening to a eulogy from a father who had lost his son to suicide. She thought: “Thank God our family is okay”.

But 6 months later, her stepson, 17-year-old Evan Tong, would end his life the same way.

The family knew that Evan was depressed, but dismissed the possibility that he might resort to suicide, a subject that remains taboo in many Asian households.

Although suicide rates among young Asian people are lower than those for the overall US population, the number has grown significantly in the past decade. For Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) aged 20-24, the suicide rate increased from 7.4 per cent to 13.6 per cent between 2011 and 2018, according to data from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Even when you do succeed, nobody thinks you're worthy of a celebration. People will say, ‘Oh, you aced all tests? It’s because you're an Asian’
George Qiao, a college mental health advocate in Boston

Suicide was also the leading cause of death among AAPIs aged 15-24, according to CDC. Specifically, for those 20-24, suicide accounted for 33.1 per cent of AAPI deaths in 2017 – the highest of all ethnicities. By contrast, the number was 21 per cent among Caucasians in the same age group.

Jorge Wong, a clinical psychologist at Palo Alto University in California, called the statistics “alarming”.

Although it is unclear what factors are behind the growing trend among young Asians, Wong cited a couple of cultural and social changes that might be taking a toll on the group’s mental health and exposing Asian-Americans to risks of suicide.

“Social media is something that everybody is looking at, especially the younger generations,” Wong said. The “ideal” lives presented on social media would bring pressure and cause self-doubt among users, he said, adding that the spread of suicidal messages and online exposure to suicide cases could also be exacerbating the problem, especially for teenagers.

The rise of racist ideology and discriminatory rhetoric within and beyond the United States in recent years may also play a role, Wong said.

Although Asian-Americans often are perceived as high achievers in the US, mental health experts and advocates suggested that the combination of heavy pressure to succeed and a conflicted cultural identity is threatening the group’s mental health.

On top of that, the strong stigma associated with mental illness in Asian households could discourage young people from seeking professional help, with deadly consequences.

Eric Lu fit the profile of a typical Asian “golden” child – he was a Harvard graduate and a medical school student with the potential to become a wealthy doctor – before suffering severe depression and harbouring suicidal thoughts in 2014.

Born in Taiwan, Lu moved to Texas with his family at age 3. Like many second-generation Asian-Americans, his family stressed values such as obedience to his elders and a strong focus on academic success. Many of these principles, he said, conflicted with the American perspectives he was exposed to at school.

“I don’t think growing up I really developed my own sense of identity,” he said. Instead, he learned to be flexible and to “fit into the prevailing mindset”, whether at home or at school; his school was predominantly white.
He lived in harmony with this “dual identity” until his first year at Harvard Medical School. At that time, he found his true passion in the film industry and took a leave from school to pursue his dream of making films.

But his immigrant parents could not endorse his bet on an “unstable career”. They pushed back, threatened to cut off his financial support and to even disown him. Fights over Lu’s career choice lasted for “two to three hours” every day during his leave of absence from school.

Lu – who now is a full-time filmmaker – said he felt “very torn” between his family values and his new-found sense of self. Eventually, he would give in and return to medical school. Soon afterward, he slipped into a depression and began having suicidal thoughts. For more than a month, he kept thinking of jumping off the balcony of his 17th-floor flat.

Lu’s experience reflects the anxiety that young Asian-Americans can feel from the pressure to achieve academic and professional excellence. A recent Indiana University study found that school problems are twice as likely to contribute to suicides for AAPIs under age 25 as for their white counterparts.

Professor Y. Joel Wong, who led the study, said the result stemmed from “especially high expectations” of accomplishment shared by both Asian students and their parents.
But the pressure came not just from Asian households, but the outside world.

The “model minority” myth, which casts Asians as diligent, well-educated and even well-paid achievers, is a prevalent stereotype that second-generation Asian-Americans face. A similar view labels Asian students as quiet, obedient and weak at social relations.

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