Mention metal illness in Asia and chances are you’ll get odd looks. It’s a topic usually unspoken here and within many Asian cultures, it’s a topic shunned and hushed.
I was born in Australia to stereotypical Chinese-Malaysian parents. No one in my household brought up the subject of mental health when I grew up. For a long time, I thought it couldn’t exist in the family. But earlier this year, I was diagnosed with both social anxiety and panic disorders.
Anxiety is feeling stressed or worried on an ongoing basis. There are many forms of it, just as there are many kinds of mental illnesses – depression, anorexia, substance addiction and bipolar disorder for instance. Mental illness can affect anyone, and support towards overcoming it is all around today. But for someone from an Asian background, reaching out for that support doesn’t always come easy.
Long-held traditional values play a part in the stigma towards mental illness among many Asians. Admit having depression or anxiety and one may feel as if they are a failure, losing face and pride. In Chinese culture, success is commonly measured by attaining achievements and material possessions, and expressing emotion and thus shortcomings are seen as a disgrace.
Something felt amiss on a 35’C summer’s afternoon a few years ago. I was walking home from university after my last maths tutorial for the day. My head felt dizzy. With each step, my heart pounded faster and sweat dripped down my forehead. With each step, I slowed my pace as a pins and needles sensation overcame my legs. A feeling of impending death and hot flushes washed over me. All the signs of a panic attack. When I walked through the front door, my mum yelled at me, “Why is your face so white?! This is what happens when you walk under the sun! Go shower and then study!”
Many older generation Asians worked hard (from the early days of the Han dynasty where the Chinese tirelessly performed manual labour on farms and irrigation projects) to provide our generation with the modern life we live today. According to professor Amy Chua, Chinese parents tend to emphasise developing a strong character in their children while in contrast Western parents pay more attention to their child’s psyches. In Asian cultures, there is the idea that by working hard, mental illness is a state of mind that cannot not be overcome by conditioning the mind to focus on goals and put aside emotion. Staggering through the door that afternoon, my mum essentially told me: pick yourself up, get on with life.
Often in Asian cultures, mental illness is also seen as an embarrassment and a burden to others. Family and the notion of togetherness is a virtue to many Asians, the notion that if we’re down, we bring others down too. Shame yourself, shame your family. After that panic attack, I had another one a few months later in a maths lecture. This time I sweated, shook and tried not to throw up over my notes for 20 minutes and did my best to sit upright as the lecturer rambled on about formulas. I didn’t tell my parents or anyone about this that day, and no one reprimanded me for feeling poorly.
Sometimes we don’t talk about mental illness because we’re afraid of it. Illness is commonly tied to the notions of death, decay and evil spirits, and in Chinese culture, talk of either is taboo and avoided as a mark of respect to ancestors. It’s no surprise then some typical Asians find it hard to talk through their state of mind.
Coming from an Asian background and living with mental illness, we might feel constrained from getting help but more importantly, constrained from being ourselves and expressing our voice. We keep quiet about mental illness and in a way we box ourselves into the quiet and passive Asian stereotype. When we continue on the path of hard work and ignore conflicting thoughts racing though our mind, we might believe that perfect is possible – that the (Asian) model minority myth is achievable for everyone.
Quite a few of us will experience mental illness in our lives. Almost 1 in 5 Australians will experience mental illness in a 12-month period. In parts of Asia, a number choose the silent way out when they feel mentally overwhelmed: 90% of suicidal victims in Korea have diagnosable psychiatric illnesses and only 15% seek treatment prior. Around 70 reportedly commit suicide daily in Japan with the majority being men unsure about expressing their emotions.
Consequently, all of us cope differently with mental illness. Some of us have a set of techniques to help us reach a more positive mindset, while some of us need professional help to get there. Sometimes it takes someone to pick at our mind for us to realise we need help. Last year, I went for a job interview and felt chuffed about my responses as I chatted to the employer…all while my legs felt tingly, my chest swelling with impending doom. At the end of the interview, she told me point blank, “You have solid experience and credentials. You are very intelligent, and sometimes intelligent people speak fast. You need to slow down.”
I felt like someone punched me in the face. But I didn’t object because she was right; I struggle to feel comfortable around most people. My mind flashed back to two years ago when I couldn’t walk into a shop without feeling the shop assistants would eat me up – and avoided shopping. To the time when a guy at university fancied me, chased me for two years and I loved it all and him but every morsel in my body screamed “Stay away, stay away!” – for fear of being suffocated by another’s touch, physically and emotionally. Didn’t get the job, didn’t get the guy.
Speaking up has always been alien and nerve-racking to me, and this probably stems from my constant desire to be polite and let others speak, the typical Asian trait my parents taught me…which I still believe in. There’s also not forgetting the times when my white Aussie classmates teased me when I stammered reading aloud books during reading time in pre-school. As author Shannon Alder said about our past experiences:
“Your perspective on life comes from the cage you were held captive in.”
Acknowledging having mental illness as someone of Asian background, we might question the values we were brought up with. We question those closest to us including family and the trust we’ve put in them. As hard as it may be, sometimes we simply have to swallow our cultural pride, forget where we’re from and what we’ve known in order to move forwards. Our background is just one part of us, personality another, and personality we can change.
That sentiment gave me the push to see a psychologist earlier this year. We talked about my panic attacks, how nervous I feel when responding to comments on my blog, how self-doubt puts me off writing my book again and again and ongoing health issues that anxiety has brought me. First world problems. Not once did she – or me – bring up the topic of my heritage. With the help of my therapist who seems like the non-judgmental listening ear I never had, I realised someone’s opinion is their opinion, their values are their values and not necessarily ours. With each generation, our heritage is ours to make and ours to define through our unique experiences.
A different, non-judgmental opinion often helps us look beyond our own mind. But we have to stand up and speak out first. On reaching out, Shannon Alder offers:
“Never give up on someone with a mental illness. When “I” is replaced by “We”, illness becomes wellness.”
Some might say I’m a rebel for seeking help and speaking out about my anxiety based on the fact that I’m Chinese. But fact is, not all of us will fit stereotypes given we have our own strengths and talents, and we all change as people as time goes by. Today, I still have yet to land a stable job, still haven’t gotten the guy. But I’ve built this blog, connected and met you, and it’s still going. None of us are perfect; we’re all a work in progress.
No matter where we come from, perhaps we need to reach out to better ourselves mentally, emotionally. We can’t hide forever about how we feel or who we really are. We’re all meant to love each other and ourselves, and all that’s meant to be shared.
How did you cope with a low point in your life?