Metal illness is usually a taboo topic many Asian cultures. It’s an unspoken topic that is stigmatised, shunned and hushed among many of stereotypical Asian background.
I was born in Australia to Chinese-Malaysian parents. No one in my family brought up the subject of mental health when I grew up. At some point in my adult life, I was diagnosed with social anxiety and panic disorders.
Anxiety is when you feel stressed or worried on an ongoing basis. There are many forms of anxiety, just as there are many kinds of mental illnesses such as depression, anorexia, substance addiction and bipolar disorder.
Mental illness can affect anyone. If you’re someone from an Asian background and have mental illness, reaching out for support is often hard to do.
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 while expressing emotion and shortcomings are seen as a disgrace.
One 35’C summer afternoon, I was walking home from university. 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 washed over me. I was having 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! Heat stroke!’
The early days of the Han dynasty saw many Chinese tirelessly perform manual labour on farms and irrigation projects under the sun. Many older generation Asians worked hard to provide our generation with the modern life we live today. According to 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.
Consequently in Asian cultures, there is the idea that by working hard, mental illness is a state of mind that can be overcome by conditioning the mind to focus on goals instead of emotion.
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: if you’re down, you bring others down too. Shame yourself, shame your family.
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. In Chinese culture, talk of all of this is taboo and avoided as a mark of respect to ancestors.
It’s no surprise some typical Asians find it hard to talk through their state of mind, feel constrained from getting help and from being expressing ourselves. We keep quiet about mental illness and in a way we box ourselves into the 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.
Many of us over the world 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, some 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.
Each of us cope differently with mental illness. Some of us have a set of techniques to reach a more positive mindset while others need professional help.
Last year, I went for a job interview. I felt chuffed to be there chatting to the employer…all while feeling anxiety wash over me. At the end of the interview, she told me point blank and looked me straight in the eye, ‘You have solid experience and credentials. You are very intelligent. Sometimes intelligent people speak fast.’
I didn’t object because she was right. I struggle to feel comfortable around most people. I didn’t get the job.
Speaking in front of an audience has always been nerve-racking to me. There’s not forgetting the times when my white Aussie classmates teased me as I stammered reading aloud 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 is another part of us and personality we can work to change – and learn to manage living with mental illness.
That sentiment encouraged me to see a psychologist. We talked about my panic attacks, anxiety episodes, how nervous I feel when responding to comments on my blog and how self-doubt puts me off writing my book again and again.
Not once did she – or me – bring up the topic of my heritage. With the help of my therapist and a non-judgmental listening ear, I realised someone’s opinion is their opinion, their values are their values and not necessarily ours.
A different, non-judgmental opinion often helps us look beyond our own mind. 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 because I’m Chinese. But fact is, not all of us will fit stereotypes and we change as time goes by.
We can’t always hide about how we feel or who we really are. No matter where we come from, perhaps we need to reach out to better ourselves mentally and emotionally.
How did you cope with a low point in your life?