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  • Vanessa Nguyen

Crying over Bs: An Asian-American experience

I was in fourth grade when I had my first mental breakdown…over a B+. Over the years, I would reference this moment and laugh at it, finding humor in the fact that something as minuscule as a grade of B+ could make me cry so many tears when there were “so many other real-world problems.” I also found humor in the fact that one of my teachers in elementary school placed me in a math competition when in fact, math was one of my worst subjects (still is). In college, a mental health educator introduced me to the model minority myth, and suddenly I realized that my elementary school mental breakdown was only the beginning of my challenging relationship with my mental health. More importantly, I realized that so many fellow Asian-American students suffered from the same pressures of finding success in a country that already expects so much from us, and that this pressure ties heavily into our mental health. Welcome to the model minority myth.

The model minority myth creates a false narrative that all Asian individuals are naturally smart, hard-working, and successful. What is seemingly a positive stereotype actually has the capacity to produce negative circumstances and experiences for victims of the stereotype that can never seem to live up to these standards. The model minority myth could sound like, “You’re Asian, aren’t you supposed to be smart?” or “So-and-so’s son is a doctor now, why aren’t you one yet?” I began struggling with anxiety and depression in my early 20s, finding myself unable to cope with my emotions and a never-ending quest to be “good enough” for anyone, or anything. At the time, I had no resources and no knowledge of how to help myself besides scrolling through Google for hours trying to diagnose myself through the internet. We’ve all been there, right? I thought to myself so many times, that something must have been wrong with me. Why did the thought of failure scare me so much? Why was not being “enough” such a burden on me? We all grew up hearing the stories of how our parents and ancestors went through so many lengths to provide us with a better life here in the states, so in return, we had to succeed…right?

According to Mental Health America, Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) adults are the least likely racial group to seek mental health treatment, about three times less likely than Caucasian adults. Some of the most common reasons that AAPI individuals experience mental health issues include intergenerational trauma, anxiety over integrating both American and Asian identities, and trying to reach unrealistic standards set by the model minority myth. According to the American Psychological Association, one of the most common reasons that deter AAPI individuals from seeking mental health treatment is the stigma and taboo that surrounds the topic of mental health.

Photo: Barney Yau

What they don’t teach us in schools growing up is that being Asian-American and children of immigrants or refugees meant that we were more susceptible to becoming victims of the model minority myth, living in the shadows of the high expectations placed upon us. So many of us would grow up minimizing our mental health issues and our pain, because we felt ashamed seeking help when our ancestors literally fought in wars and escaped to the states in boats. Those of us who were brave enough to speak up about our mental health issues were returned with lectures about what “real” problems were. Those of us who finally expressed that we were depressed were told that “it’s all in our heads.” I wish someone back then would have told me that I could simultaneously honor my parents’ and ancestors’ past hardships while still acknowledging my own. I wish I would have known that my ancestors’ struggles do not make mine any less deserving of attention and care. Our parents experienced a type of trauma that we may not ever truly understand, but if we want to break this pattern of intergenerational trauma, we need to teach them that our experiences matter as well, no matter how big or small.

It took years and years of unlearning these toxic cultural norms and messages before I was able to finally admit that I needed help. I had to keep reassuring myself that my problems were valid, that I truly deserve to feel better, and that I could feel better. Most importantly, however, I had to get myself to make that appointment with a therapist and remind myself that it doesn’t make me any less of a person to do so. We need to advocate for our fellow AAPI individuals and get rid of this stigma around mental health that has permeated our communities for so long. We’re currently living in an era where hate crimes are continuing to increase due to stereotypes that have been created by the pandemic. Our AAPI communities are especially vulnerable to the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding this pandemic, and the lives of the loved ones we have lost. If you are someone who has been silent on mental health issues in the past, begin speaking out on these topics. If you don’t personally struggle with mental health issues, speak out on these issues anyway so that the ones you care about feel comfortable doing it. Stay informed on mental health resources and outlets so that you could refer yourself or someone you know to get treatment. Create and share the space for someone who is going through a difficult time, because being a good listener is one of the most important ways you can be a support system for someone who needs it. Finally, if there’s one thing the failure of the model minority myth can teach us is to not compare our path to anyone else’s, that we are all valid of love, care, and healing. 


Photo: @jeshoots

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