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Interview with Kinhthia Lam on Mental Health Issues in Asian Americans

Kinthia Lam is a Cambodian-American undergraduate student at Temple University currently studying Art Therapy. She has previously taken a leave of absence as personal circumstances led her to want to focus more on her mental health. Here, she discusses her views on how mental health is treated among Asian Americans and personal experiences with it.

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. Yes, I have a few issues with mental health in my life. Mainly dealing with anxiety and depression. My parents didn’t take to the news so well, in fact, they have told me that it is in my head and is caused by me unable to let go of past situations, experiences, and people. They are Buddhists, and are heavy believers in forgetting the past to live in the present. This is something I have adopted in my life, however the extent at which they want me to abandon my past which is the reason I am who I am today, shows the ignorance they have in regards to mental health.

My friends are the best support I could have, always open to talking to me, helping me out in any way they can, making sure to let me know that my issues aren’t bc I’m trying to hold onto hurt, but because i’m trying to heal and grow from those experiences and struggles. Although it saddens them that my issues are extremely negative towards myself, they know that being a support system is the best thing for me to have while I battle against these issues.

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

A. While going through a hard time, I have many good and bad coping mechanisms. Usually, I attempt to self soothe by engaging in hobbies such as art or reading, watching nonsensical videos, or playing music to offset any background noise. Otherwise, I go outside to smoke. If I don’t have anything, I talk to my friends. Facetime, text, call, whatever they are available on. People are good distractions.

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. Many cultural factors affect everything. The high expectations that place tons of emphasis on finishing with best scores, best attitude, and as fast as you can. You’re overwhelmed with work? That is on you for poor time management. Every failure is solely your responsibility, unless you succeed then it’s a success for the family. It is about how you present yourself to others, it is about how good you look when being shown off. You can’t look too different, or there is a problem with you. Family is everything, everything else is a distraction. It’s built in to the culture to simply push through it and if you don’t you’re a failure for it.

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

A. Mental Health is treated as a joke. Any issues you experience, it simply isn’t real or is not “bad enough” for them to care. Unless someone is physically harming themselves, or already gone, it isn’t even a conversation topic for them to put importance to. The struggles elders experience always outweigh anyone else’s when they’re in another country, because the life you have now is “much better” than the ones they have experienced in their homeland. My family believes this as well. It is better for you to never acknowledge that you are mentally ill, than to try to get them to be aware and understand it.

Q. What cultural reforms do you think need to be made in order to make the discussion about mental health more normal in Asian American families?

A. When immigrants move to America, or any other country, they come into the country with these set ideals and values from their home, without considering that their children will be raised in a complete different culture and system than to the one they know before. With more freedom, comes more individualism, and a set of different issues that often confuse immigrants who were always told to toughen up since a young age.
There would need to be a huge cultural shift coming from the younger generations in that culture for them to change. And those changes might bring about an entirely new subset of culture, and not change that culture in itself. But for an actual solution, there would be a need in free educational classes involving the culture, and the conversation of mental health, expectations, reality, and more all in it.
– Farah Feddaraini

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