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Interview with Riley Tien on Mental Health Issues in Asian Americans

Riley Tien, a fourth-year Chinese-American undergraduate student at Drexel University, was interviewed by the Indonesian Lantern to discuss mental health issues in Asian Americans. He is currently studying Psychology in order to pursue a career in the mental health field. He will be also be named Vice President of Psi Chi, an international honor society in psychology, after stepping down as Co-Director of Mentorship. Here, he shares his thoughts on how mental health is treated in the Asian American community, personal struggles, and support systems he used to combat these struggles. 

Q. Have you personally had any issues with mental health in your life? How have your parents dealt with it if they knew? How have your friends dealt with it if they knew?

A. I have definitely experienced issues with mental health–particularly during my adolescence. My parents have had a difficult time understanding my struggles. It’s not that they didn’t care; they just didn’t know how to help me. My parents have a very traditional mindset when it comes to mental health–they believe it is more of a personal problem that should be overcome by itself rather than something that you should seek external help for. It’d be hard to expect them to know how to help with something they didn’t understand. I find that my friends have been more understanding of my mental health issues, since, as children of immigrants, they come from very similar backgrounds.  

Q. Whilst going through a hard time, who/what do you rely on to support yourself?

A. I think it’s most important to rely on myself first during tough situations, but I’ve learned to be more open with my family and friends. I definitely could not have gotten to where I am without their support. Both serve different, but equally important roles to me. My family has supported me by passing down customs and a community that I have had all my life. These people are a community that has given me a lot of stability and confidants in my life. My friends support me on a personal level. They are more comfortable with validating my feelings.

Q. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, suicide is the leading cause of death among Asian Americans aged 20-24 years. What cultural factors do you think contribute to this issue?

A. This is incredibly upsetting to hear, but also why I am pursuing a career in mental health. Despite the growing awareness, I feel that cultural shame continues to play a large role in Asian Americans’ mental health. Most Asian Americans come from traditionally collectivist cultures that hold collective honor, like family and society, in the highest esteem. Oftentimes, these communities shame individuals for choices they disapprove of, and believe an individual’s actions hurt the family and community as a whole. Personally I think attitudes like this make love and acceptance feel conditional, which can definitely harm the parent-child relationship, subsequently putting the individual at risk for mental illness and straining familial support systems. 

Q. What is your opinion on how mental health is treated in the Asian American community? In your family?

A. Mental health is heavily stigmatized amongst Asian American communities. We often fear being thought of as weak or crazy for having a mental illness. Generally, this is based on cultural ideas of work ethics and responsibilities to one’s family; there is a heavy expectation to provide for your family. The thought of failing these expectations can pressure us into avoiding seeking professional help for mental health issues. This often leads us to look for support and ways of coping in avenues outside of mental health professionals, like religion, friends, and relatives. 

My family regards mental health issues similarly to many other Asian American communities and does not understand the topic very much. They believe that any issues should be resolved by yourself. As my siblings and I have grown older, we have been working to destigmatize mental health issues among ourselves and our older family members. 

Q. What institutional reforms do you think need to be made in order to make mental health services more accessible? 

A. I think we need more therapists– particularly those who represent minorities. Representation of minority groups in professional mental health care settings is vital to creating trust with and combating stigma in these communities. This would build more mental health resources that Asian American communities may feel comfortable using. Further, this creates communal ties between these two fields where conversations can include cultural heritage and compassion.

– Farah Feddaraini

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