Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the United States. But, it is the second leading cause of death for Asian Americans ages 15-34 years old. Yet, we never seem to hear about or talk about this troubling statistic. In many of our immigrant cultures, mental health is still very much taboo. Shame and stigma often prevent Asian Americans from acknowledging mental illness. Asian Americans are less likely to think it is acceptable to seek help from mental health professionals because it can be viewed as a personal weakness. Asian Americans with suicidal thoughts are less likely to perceive a need for treatment because opting to utilize mental health services requires admitting the existence of a problem. Admitting that one needs help may cause shame to the family if personal issues become public.
Not to mention, mainstream mental health resources and treatment providers often do not understand the cultural values and diversity that exists within our Asian American communities. Mainstream providers who are not sensitized to Asian cultural values or culturally competent are unable to bypass the shame-based resistance that Asian Americans have toward seeking help and discussing mental illness or suicidality.
Asian American college students have particularly high rates of suicide. As young adults begin to individuate from their families and acculturate to more mainstream American values of individualism. Young adults may feel ostracized by parents or family members, whose values may not align with American values. This mismatch in values can lead to intergenerational cultural conflict; this conflict has been shown to increase levels of psychological distress. Outside of the family, in academic settings, the image of the model minority can also create stress for Asian American youth. Due to the model minority stereotype, Asian American youth are often placed under immense pressure to excel academically, which can lead to a sense of guilt or shame if they experience academic struggles.
The stigma associated with mental illness is so deeply entrenched in many Asian cultures and it is unrealistic to think that people in the community can easily change their minds, but the pressure to hide our problems away has dangerous consequences. Therefore, in order to address these preventable losses of life—in order for our community to not just survive, but thrive, it is absolutely necessary for us to learn how to discuss suicide prevention in a way that is culturally fit for the needs of our diverse Asian American community.
Know The Warning Signs
The majority of individuals who die by suicide give warning signs. These warning signs may include giving away possessions, talking about suicide, changes in personality, social withdrawal, and changes in sleeping or eating patterns.
Talking About Suicide Does Not Precipitate Suicide
There is a common misperception that talking about suicide may plant the idea in an individual’s mind. Broaching the subject of suicide actually allows things to come out in the open so that people can get the help and resources they need. Often times there is a feeling of relief when individuals with suicidal thoughts are able to openly talk and feel understood and supported.
Protective factors against suicide attempts include strong identification with one’s ethnic group. Additional protective factors against suicidal thoughts include strong family cohesion and parental support, for both adolescents and young adults.
If you suspect that someone has suicidal thoughts, ask directly if he/she is considering suicide. If the person says “yes,” take it seriously and help him/her obtain professional help. If you or someone you know is in immediate crisis, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Even if it is not an immediate crisis, if you are seeking additional support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or text TALK to 741741.
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