Push to achieve tied to suicide in Asian-American women

Um, duh.

Ok, now that I’m done with that insightful commentary, I just want to say that not getting straight A’s has never been so horrifying to me that I would want to commit suicide over my grades. (That doesn’t stop me from petitioning my school to reinstate my A from last term so my GPA doesn’t drop.)

In all seriousness, in 2005, the United States Department of Health and Human Services reported that Asian American females between the ages of 15 and 24 had the highest suicide rate among all women in that age range.

The push to achieve is also often cited as a factor in suicide for Asian-American men or Asians (see this article about suicide in Taiwanese youth from a few years back).

With the recent suicide of Jennifer Tse, a junior biochemistry and molecular biology major at UC Davis, the issue of stress among the Asian American female population has been brought to the forefront. [full story]

While I think this is a very likely reason that Asian-American women who commit suicide do so, I think it ignores potential mental health issues that may be related. Are these women clinically depressed? Have they received any treatment? Did they have social issues? Did they possibly use drugs? There are any number of other reasons that could have also pushed them to the point of suicide, but I think it’s easy to put it under the “push to achieve” umbrella and blame the Model Minority expections. I’m not saying culture and achievement don’t have a major part in this; they probably do.

However, I think it’s dangerous to ignore the other things that may or may not have been going on the victims lives and say “Oh man, she was under so much pressure to achieve and she couldn’t take it.” While a gal may not be able to change parents who are pushy, or a college admission system that is incredibly competitive, or even a society who looks at her and expects her to achieve, if someone is depressed because she lost a boyfriend and doesn’t feel good about her self-image (on top of having a lot of pressure to achieve), it’s possible for her to seek help about some of the other problems and possibly prevent a tragedy for a family and community.

Sometimes a great big problem is made up of a whole bunch of unrelated problems.

Oh yeah, here’s the story:

Push to achieve tied to suicide in Asian-American women
By Elizabeth Cohen, CNN. POSTED: 2:53 p.m. EDT, May 16, 2007

Story Highlights
• Suicide second-leading cause of death for Asian-American women 15-24
• Highest suicide rate among women of any race, ethnicity for that age group
• Experts cite “model minority” expectations, family pressures as factors

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) — One evening in 1990, Eliza Noh hung up the phone with her sister. Disturbed about the conversation, Noh immediately started writing a letter to her sister, a college student who was often depressed. “I told her I supported her, and I encouraged her,” Noh says.

But her sister never read the letter. By the time it arrived, she’d killed herself.

Moved by that tragedy, Noh has spent much of her professional life studying depression and suicide among Asian-American women. An assistant professor of Asian-American studies at California State University at Fullerton, Noh has read the sobering statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services: Asian-American women ages 15-24 have the highest suicide rate of women in any race or ethnic group in that age group. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Asian-American women in that age range.

Depression starts even younger than age 15. Noh says one study has shown that as young as the fifth grade, Asian-American girls have the highest rate of depression so severe they’ve contemplated suicide.[full story]

(If you have time to check it out on CNN tonight, Elizabeth Cohen examines depression in Asian-American women and the cultural stigma against getting help, on “Paula Zahn Now,” 8 p.m. ET)

h/t: OutOutBlogger, who sent me the link to this article, saying she thought of me when she read the article!

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7 Responses to “Push to achieve tied to suicide in Asian-American women”



  • Interesting article.
    From my experience: I was 13 when I first thought of suicide. I was under considerable pressure from my dad to do well in school– I was chastised for bringing home Bs on my report card. I was also yelled at for not wanting to go to my prom. I felt like a failure, even if I wasn’t.

    When I went to college, I totally acted out my first year– I drank a lot, did some reckless things. My second year proved to be harder for me academically, and again I fell into depression. I finally decided to get help and see a psychiatrist on campus.

    My father was upset that I did that, telling me that I was weak and I shouldn’t be telling personal things to a complete stranger. But I stood my ground, and I kept going to therapy. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

    I’m in my 30s now. I have mild depression, but I’ve learned to manage it. My relationship with my father is much better now that we’re both older and mellower.


  • Yoko, thanks for sharing.

    I can relate to your experience more than you can imagine!


  • hi there. i actually came by this blog through reading littleyellowdifferent. incidentally, jennifer tse was a friend of mine, and i thought i might mention that the cal aggie really distorted her death when implying that pressure to succeed led to her suicide.


  • Linda,

    Thanks for your comment. I appreciate the insight about Jennifer. Were there any other sources of coverage that provided a more holistic picture of her?

  • J. Peter Siriprakorn


    i tend to think the pressure to overachieve (a pressure which has certainly reached ridonkulous degrees all across the racial board) hits the asian american community particularly hard precisely because it occurs in a vacuum. there is such little communication internally and such a weak internal support network that the pressure is in many ways more acute because it is unmediated by the presence of a public, by a certain public-ness.

    in mainstream white culture for example, there is at least a public perception of the ivy league grooming rituals behind the scenes — the scheduling of every moment of a child’s time, for example, the micromanaging of a child’s daily routine, has been thoroughly played out on popular t.v. dramas/sitcoms, after school specials. in short, those popular dramatizations have permeated our consciousness of ourselves and our social world. there’s a public awareness of the ways of regulating the pressure, and a form of community that that has surfaced through attachment to such shared practices. the asian american community on the other hand tends to be much more insular, more isolated. our practices happen behind closed doors, largely barring new modes of connectedness, social identification, empathy – things which might make the pressure-cooker less likely to burst.

    I guess what i’m trying to say is that in mainstream white culture the micromanaging of a child’s time can become a mode of identification with a larger social body — and it seems to me that that vague sense of community is something the asian american ‘community’ (if one can even call it that, because it’s not like there’s much to make us cohere. not like we have any sort of recognizable political identity) is sorely in need of. It’s certainly not a cure, but the more we can earn these issues a place in the social semiotic (because the model minority stereotype so deeply informs our sense of what an Asian American identity should or should not be, it always casts a shadow whether we legitimate it or not), the less damage there will be overall.


  • As mentioned in the post and in the comments, the push to success is one of many seemingly unrelated reasons as to why someone would want to end their life. I think a good portion has to do with self-esteem as very rarely – especially with women – is never really nurtured especially when we’re competing against one another. Women process information very personally and the smallest criticism can totally be blown out of proportion.
    I remember when I was going through such a difficult phase that I kept on thinking that my problems are nothing compared to other people’s problems and that I shouldn’t burden anyone with mine. – And I think that’s the BIGGER issue in the Asian culture where people don’t want to become a burden – so they just end it, not knowing that they weren’t a burden in the first place and someone was always there willing to support and help them through it.


  • this is a serious issue. a korean female student at manhattan school of music (a few years ago) jumped off the 6th floor because she broke up with her boyfriend.

    when i asked some students from korea why they think she may have killed herself; they actually cited korean dramas! that perhaps the korean girl thought that it would make a dramatic, tragic statement…which i found appalling.

    the last few suicides at columbia, apparently, have been korean females as well. (this is from word of mouth so i’m not sure how true that last statement is).

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