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Panel Explores Mental Health, Asian American Culture

By Andrew M. Duehren, Contributing Writer

Asian and Asian American students face unique mental health challenges as a byproduct of both ethnic stereotypes and cultural attitudes towards emotional vulnerability, panelists at the Harvard Graduate School of Education said Wednesday.

“We know that a disproportionate number of Asian Americans and Asians are impacted by mental illness and mental health,” said Josephine M. H. Kim, a professor at the Education School, in her opening remarks.

The panel discussion, sponsored by the Asian Coalition for Education, featured two students at the Education School, an alumna of the school, an associate professor of social research, and Ed K.S. Wang, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School who holds a board position on the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association. Cindy Liu, director of multicultural research at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, moderated the discussion.

The event was part of “Fulfilling the Promise of Diversity,” a yearlong effort at GSE to conduct discussions about diversity. The audience, which included Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, filled the conference center at the Monroe C. Gutman Library.

The panelists discussed how a closer look at statistics indicates that Asians and Asian Americans have a particularly high rate of mental illness.

“Asian American girls have the highest depression rate [among ethnic groups],” said Hyeouk “Chris” Hahm, an associate professor of social research at Boston University.

Members of the panel shared their personal experiences with mental illness and how their Asian and Asian American identities influenced their recovery processes.

Sunny Zhang, a student at GSE, cited her father’s cultural standards as a precedent for dealing with emotional and mental vulnerability.

“For him, culturally, you don’t air dirty laundry,” she said. “You always put on your best face when you go out the door in the morning.”

This kind of veiling of difficult emotions is typical for those raised in Asian and Asian American households, said some of the panelists and event organizers.

“Asian Americans have a lot of mental health issues, but we have a hard time surfacing [these issues] for a variety of cultural reasons,” said Ivy Lee, a student who helped organize the event.

But the panelists said that an open dialogue about mental health issues will help combat the stigma all students affected by mental illness—Asian American or not—feel.

“Something is happening [where] we can actually openly talk about mental health and mental issues,” Wang said.

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