Mental Health Awareness Day was earlier this week, and while mental health awareness is gaining ground in many societies, there are others which are still very behind. This is definitely an issue in many more “traditional” cultures, including various East Asian communities (including Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean – cultures greatly influenced by the teachings of Confucius). Because my ethnic background is Chinese, I felt that it was very important to encourage more open discussion on the issue – to let people know that NO, having a mental health issue will NOT ruin family reputation – past, present or future – and that yes, sometimes, culture DOES come into play – beyond linguistic issues. That was why, in August, I helped Healthy Minds Canada organize a lunch and learn on this very topic. The event included a panel of three – a mental health professional (Dr. Kenneth Fung, who heads the Asian Mental Health Initiative at Toronto Western Hospital), a field/promotions worker (Emillie Nguyen from Hong Fook (a mental health facility which provides services to several East Asian communities in Toronto) and someone with lived experience. Each discussed their experiences with various communities and how things can and need to change.
Highlights from the Healthy Minds Canada lunch and learn. The full panel discussion, which is an hour long, can be seen here.
The issue regarding mental health in Asian communities has long been bothering me. It goes back to the Virginia Tech shootings (2007!), where the shooter was of Korean descent. They brought up his ethnic background a little, and definitely discussed mental health, but I felt that it was a good time to bring up how SOME cultural communities treat mental health. I realize ethnicity is always a very sensitive topic – especially when it comes to violent crimes – but I was surprised that very little of it was discussed on news shows. I have also been told by some family members that depression is not a “real” condition, but merely a “middle class invention.” Most are from older generations, those who’ve been through the Second World War or those born soon after. They talk about how the war and subsequent decades – probably until the mid 1960s – meant that there “was nothing to be happy about,” and yet, they survived. That now that we are so privileged, that we should just “deal with it.” Really? We’re just complaining? Are you SURE you weren’t depressed? Or for those who lived through the war, suffering from PTSD? Then there’s immigration, ranging from the stress of adapting to an entirely new country to career issues (e.g. not finding a job in your field) and discrimination.
It isn’t only a problem with the immigrant generation. Children of immigrants, whether they were born in the west or came as very young children often face conflicting cultural ideals – having to deal with what is acceptable in their heritage culture which may or may not clash with what is considered appropriate in Canada, causing a great deal of stress. However, it’s just not discussed because it’s not a “problem” that “good East Asian families” face. This “stiff upper lip-ness” is astounding and the very reason why there are problems within the communities. The hiddeness of the very existence of mental health conditions is very real, and there are studies which show that those of various East Asian backgrounds seek help at worse conditions than those from other cultures. I’ve brought up the very topic before, but was dismissed each time – until this year when I spoke with Healthy Minds Canada.
I’m really glad I organized the event. In fact, I felt a great deal of relief immediately after – even if I’m unsure of whether the point REALLY got across. As I don’t read any East Asian language nor do I watch television in said languages, I am unsure of whether there was any media coverage. I hope there was. And I hope to see more people – especially those with a great deal of influence within the community (including celebrities, both here and in the old countries) – open up and say that they’ve had personal experiences. Only that way will it become more okay. And only then will these communities start catching up.