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!

(x-posted at 8asians.com)

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

  • One of the things that’s a big problem in the Asian Am community is the incredible amount of stigma behind mental illness, and the inability for many Asian Americans (particularly immigrants) to talk about it, seek treatment for it, and to complete the treatment. Because these symptoms aren’t really manifested by physical findings (unless they can will their bodies to do so–which does happen), many Asian Americans believe that it doesn’t exist and won’t seek the treatment for it. There apparently is a huge stigma for Asian Americans to seek therapy for their issues, yet many of the well adjusted Asians I know openly admit to using therapy to deal with their problems (myself included). It also doesn’t help that there aren’t a lot of ways that are culturally respectful for Asian Americans, which turns many off to seeking help.

    Eliza Noh is a kickass woman, btw. I met her when we were both grad students and I was in one of her panels for an Association of Asian American Studies conference here in SF on Asian Ams and mental health, and she does great work.

  • why didn’t eliza send her sister and e-mail instead of a letter?
    i know, that’s not the point. it’s a very sad phenomenon. i’m definitely not going to pressure my daughter or son when they get older.

  • The article says that Eliza’s sister died in 1990, pre e-mail for the consumer market days.

  • Very sad thing. But it highlights, I think, some changes that must happen to the Asian American community. First, they need to not be so intense with the achievement pushing on their children. And, the stigma of mental illness (or, as stkyrice alluded to, the complete disbelief in it) must be addressed as well.

  • Deltus, re: “they need to not be so intense with the achievement pushing on their children.”

    This is part of the values and culture of many Asian Americans, that’s not something that people are just going to “decide to do.” It would be a fundmental shift in their value systems. Very difficult but also it reflects the point I was making. The focus on “achievement pushing” totally ignores other reasons why someone might commit suicide. Why do people from other cultures/backgrounds commit suicide? Is “achievement pushing” making it worse for Asians?

    Personally, and I know people will disagree with this, I think that people (in general) should push their kids harder; we should expect more from kids and they will rise to the challenge. I don’t think it solves anything to say “parents shouldn’t push so hard” because lots of Asian/Asian American parents push and most kids don’t kill themselves over it. What’s important is that if parents are going to push, that they’re sensitive to how their child is handling it and to lay off if they might be going too far. I don’t think “laying off” for its own sake is healthy, either.

  • I agree with Joz. It’s way too easy to blame “society” when what’s really needed is parents to maintain good communication with their children, and to help their children develop the social skills to talk to friends and other people to deal with their problems. Too often, the media will pin the cause on something identifiable and easily explained, like “the model minority push”. It also lumps Asian Americans into one big group, where the more established Asian American groups, like Chinese, Filipino, Korean, are able to have the community support to do this so called “pushing”, while other groups are still dealing with long histories of war and poverty and are just barely scraping by (like many immigrants from Afghanistan and Southeast Asia) and for whom this is completely irrelevant.

    There are a lot of other issues that are always pushed under the table when Asians commit suicide, like mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder among Southeast Asian immigrants (like the Mien, Hmong, etc) and the incredibly staggering rates of domestic violence and other forms of abuse (emotional, physical, sexual, etc.) that are inflicted upon Asian American kids. When I was doing research on topics for my dissertation when I was still in grad school, the rates of Asian American men experiencing some form of abuse as boys was at least 8 out of 10, if not higher, and the rates were just slightly lower for women. These are issues that the Asian American community needs to confront.

  • Well, there’s two ways to get someone to do something: the carrot and the stick. If you’re encouraging achievement in your kids with the carrot, go wild. Too often (and I’ve noticed this when I was in school, not just with asian kids but all types) the children are driven to achieve because that’s the ONLY time their parents give them any positive attention. It’s not about seeking praise, it’s about seeking any good interaction at all. And that is one hell of a stick to try to overcome.

    That’s not to say that there aren’t other reasons one would commit suicide. Of cours there are. But just because something is ingrained into the fabric of a particular culture, doesn’t mean that thing isn’t, in whole or in part, responsible for what it sows. Whenever someone commits suicide, we’ve all failed. If your value system cannot encompass that, it’s time to change your value system. Easy to say, hard to do, but that doesn’t make it any less the truth.

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