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mother holds baby's hands while they dip their feet in the water
by former Collegiate Mental Health Innovation Council member

July is Minority Mental Health Month, and there have been many articles published providing insight into the cultural complications of mental health for people of color.

I feel as if many mental health pieces in regards to youth of color tend to demonize parents as strict, stubborn, and unsympathetic towards mental health struggles. In the case of Asian parents, fault is ascribed to the Model Minority Myth (which is strongly upheld in many Asian households through strict academic and behavioral standards) and Asian stigma around mental illness. As an Asian-American woman, I too have kept my mental health struggles under wraps for these reasons. However, being the daughter of lower-middle-class Asian immigrants adds further complication in disclosing my mental health struggles. Of course, my experience does not encompass all Asian or all immigrant lives; however, I would like to share my story as it pertains to my identity in order to provide further insight on just how emotionally and practically complicated acknowledging mental health struggles and seeking treatment can be.

Why I Can’t Tell My Parents About My Mental Illness:

  1. Immigrant Guilt 
    Regardless of their background, a great number of immigrants come to a different country to completely start anew. Many of them have given up on their own personal hopes and dreams of living the life that they have always wanted. Instead, they rest their purpose on providing the best they can for their children. They sacrifice their hopes and dreams so that someday their children can have the opportunity to make their own hopes and dreams come true. Like myself, many children of immigrants grow up conscious of the enormous sacrifices that their parents have made and spend the rest of their lives proving to their parents that the suffering was not in vain. For this reason, I do not feel comfortable informing my parents of my mental health struggles. How can I, when they have given up everything for me to be happy?
  2. Dependent Relationship Dynamic 
    Through many conversations with my friends (of all different backgrounds), one thing has been made clear to me. It seems that in many families, the role of parent and child is defined. Parents give birth to children and are largely responsible for caring for and providing for them. When it comes to immigrants, the relationship between parent and child is much more complicated. Because I am born in the United States and more accustomed to the culture, language, and societal structure of the United States, I often feel responsible for translating the culture to my parents. Even at a young age, many of my immigrant peers and I have had to learn to translate documents, bills, and even laws to my family. This created a shift in the parent-child relationship that forced us to take responsibility for our families earlier on and also exposes us to family struggles that many other children were shielded from. 

    As a disclaimer, I am not suggesting that immigrant parents are not good parents. I am merely saying that being immersed in a new culture is difficult to navigate, and immigrant children often end up providing guidance in that sense.

However, even if I were able to move past these two concerns, there are two more practical barriers to deal with.

Practical Barriers:

  1. Affordability 
    As with many lower-middle-class immigrant families, the little money that we have is hard-earned, and most goes into paying for food, shelter, and basic utilities. Therefore, as long as someone gives the appearance of being functional in everyday life, their health struggles are not given additional thought. This is especially true for mental illness, an invisible struggle. Additionally, because my parents are resting their hopes and dreams of success on me, other resources they have are often devoted to my future, such as paying my college tuition. Finally, mental health treatment can be expensive, ranging from $100 to $300 per session. These costs add up, making long-term mental health treatment difficult.
  2. Language Barrier 
    Even if I wanted to, I would not be able to have a conversation about mental health with my family. Mental illness itself is already difficult to put into words. Describing mental illness in a language that one is unfamiliar with – and where terms for mental health are so stigmatized that they are more so used as casual insults than actual medical terms – makes the conversation nearly impossible and largely unproductive.

To be the child of an immigrant means growing up faster.

To be the child of an immigrant means taking responsibility for your family.

To be the child of an immigrant is to carry the hopes and dreams of your lineage.

The pressure that children of immigrants face is high, and the mental health support is low.