On Our Minds: Why Asian Americans Need to Talk More About Mental Health

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The day I learned of my best friend’s suicide attempt was the day I saw the deep, dark crevices of my own mind.

Until then—the winter of my senior year at college — I had never thought about “mental health.” Those words have never been uttered in my family. I knew of it as a concept thanks to TV shows I’ve seen and books I’ve read. But it wasn’t until that day that I learned about the physical repercussions of mental illness, and how reaching a certain point might mean it’s too late for help.

Let me rewind a bit. I am the daughter of Chinese immigrants. I’d been taught at a young age that education was the single most important thing for advancement in the world. My grandparents believed that buying books was not an expense but a life-long investment. When I came to the U.S. with my parents, education became a lifeline for us. Everything my parents did—working late, commuting far for cheaper groceries, not buying anything for themselves—was to ensure that I would receive a quality education. Education was our raison d'être.

Because of that, I was never satisfied or content. My sole purpose was to do well in school, but in fifth grade, I failed the entrance exam to Hunter College Middle School in New York City. The rejection letter brought a fog of disappointment in our small apartment. My parents weren’t yellers, but their silence was worse. To fill the emptiness, I started berating myself. “Why’re you so stupid?” I wrote angrily in my journal. “How come other kids can pass it? Why didn’t you study harder?” I was overwhelmed by despair, like my life was over.

Throughout middle and high school, the fear of failure plagued me. Everything hinged on my academic success, especially the happiness of my parents, who said things like “all I want for my birthday is for you to do well in school.” It’s probably why, in lieu of a Hallmark card, I gave my mom my report card one Mother’s Day.

After years of exacting standards, I arrived at college filled with self-hatred and steeped in low self-esteem. But my college made for an idyllic picture—it was surrounded by nature, nestled next to a small town, and brimming with bright and eager students, ready to learn. More importantly, everyone seemed happy. So once the initial excitement and shine of college wore off, that same fear of failure gripped me. I compared myself to others—how well they did in class, how skinny they looked, how many people they’d hooked up with. And I paled in every comparison. All of a sudden, I wasn’t just hating myself about academics. I began tearing myself down about everything, from what I ate, to how I looked, to what my friends thought of me.

Senior year of college, I decided to live alone and be a proctor. I thought I’d distract myself from my negative emotions by focusing on helping first years adjust. I began to distance myself from friends, fearing that I’d bring them down and become a burden. I didn’t know how to describe the seemingly endless sadness I felt to my mom, so I translated it into words she would understand—I told her I was stressed about school.

It was in this mindset that I learned of my friend’s depression and what caused her to attempt suicide. Our insecurities and fears were scarily similar. The need for perfection. The need for admiration. The constant comparisons. Suddenly, my emotions made sense to me, as if I’d been feeling around in the dark and someone finally turned on a light.

Everyone knew my friend as the happiest person with the loudest laugh. At school, she stopped to converse with everyone she knew. She was the last person I expected to harbor such sadness within. She hid it too well. But she also legitimized my feelings. Made me feel less alone. Gave me permission to seek help.

Because of my closeness with my friend, my college recommended that I talk through the experience with a therapist. When I told my mom what had happened, she questioned whether counseling was necessary. “But you’re not sad,” she said. “Don’t let it affect you. Just be happy.” To her credit, she said I should go if I felt like it’d help, but she didn’t think it’d make a difference. When things didn’t get better in the spring semester, I decided to go into my first appointment. I hated it. My therapist was a young white male, dressed in a crisp button-down shirt and trousers. He looked like a stereotypical New England bro. I felt that we had absolutely nothing in common, and that my problems would seem utterly petty to him. I left, resolving never to go back.

When I told my friends about the experience, many of them revealed that they’ve been seeing counselors for years. The fact that my brilliant and confident friends also dealt with inner demons actually made me feel better about trying therapy again. So several weeks later, I found myself returning to the counseling center to meet with another counselor—an Asian woman this time. I thought she might understand me better, all the while still worrying that she would judge my worries as petty. All she did was sit and listen. So I started to test the waters. I told her more and more humiliating incidents, my nastiest thoughts, my worst emotions. She accepted them and kept her calm as she asked how I’d like to proceed.

I wish I could say that I am totally happy now and no longer deal with low periods, but that would be disingenuous. I am, however, more in tune with my mental state. I know when I’m trapped in a downward spiral of thoughts, when I need to talk to a friend, and when I need to be alone. I felt myself getting caught up in surges of anger and frustration, so I started meditating. These are little things, but there’s no immediate fix for mental health—it’s a life-long practice filled with ups and downs.

So that’s why I’ve started this series called “On Our Minds.” It’s to have a conversation about mental health. To make information on mental health a little more accessible. To normalize the topic. To help us all feel a little less alone in our thoughts. To create a space filled with support and acceptance.

Mental health applies to everyone—it’s about taking care of our minds, no matter what state they are in. We all have fears and insecurities, but for some of us, they can become all-consuming. And the hard part is, all these feelings are invisible on the surface. The only way we can legitimize mental health and support each other is by talking about it, bringing it out into the open, and acknowledging it. This is especially important in the Asian American community, where mental health is so often interpreted as going “crazy” or “insane.” My friend taught me the importance of taking care of our mental health. Hopefully talking about it more openly can help us all make mental health a priority.