Asian American Females Struggling with Addiction and Mental Health

According to the 2015 Census Bureau population estimate, there are 17.3 million Asian Americans living in the United States and Asian Americans account for 5.4 percent of the nation’s population. In 2015, the states with the largest Asian-American populations include California, New York, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, and Washington.

According to stats published by the US Department of Health & Human Services Office of Minority Health,  it is significant to note that Asian American women have the highest life expectancy (85.8 years) of any other ethnic group in the US. Life expectancy varies among Asian subgroups: Filipino (81.5 years), Japanese (84.5 years), and Chinese women (86.1 years). However, Asian Americans contend with numerous factors that may threaten their health. Some negative factors are infrequent medical visits due to the fear of deportation, language/cultural barriers, and the lack of health insurance. Asian Americans are most at risk for the following health conditions: cancer, heart disease, stroke, unintentional injuries (accidents), and diabetes. Asian Americans also have a high prevalence of the following conditions and risk factors: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hepatitis B, HIV/AIDS, smoking, tuberculosis, and liver disease.

According to a report in Mental Health America:

  • Knowledge of the mental health needs and attitudes of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders regarding mental illness is limited. Few epidemiological studies have included Asian Americans or people whose English is limited.
  •  The National Asian Women’s Health Organization (NAWHO) sponsored a study, Breaking the Silence: A Study of Depression Among Asian American Women, that found:
    • Conflicting cultural values are impacting Asian-American women’s sense of control over their life decisions
    • Feeling responsible, yet unable to meet biased and unrealistic standards set by families and society, contributes to low self-esteem among Asian-American women
    • Asian-American women witness depression in their families but have learned from their Asian cultures to maintain silence on the subject
    • Asian-American women fear stigma for themselves, but more so for their families

According to a report in the US National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health, in some studies, Asian Americans generally appear to show rates of mental disorders that are similar to, or lower than, the larger U.S. population, report lifetime prevalence of major depressive episodes for US-born Chinese American (21.5%), for immigrant Chinese Americans (7.7%), and for Filipinos (7.2%)

One large sample epidemiological study recently reported a 12-month prevalence of mental disorders among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the US. A great deal of research has established that nativity and gender are important factors that influence the lifetime prevalence of mental health disorders among Asian Americans. 

Is there an underlying reason for mental health issues amongst Asian Americans? One line of reasoning suggests that immigrants face challenges associated with difficult contexts of exit from their countries of origin and cultural change associated with their reception in the United States. But another suggests that different acculturation processes among those who immigrate as refugees (coming for political or personal safety reasons) versus sojourners (migrating for financial or educational opportunities) explain the differences in psychological adjustment among immigrants.

Suicide rates among the Asian American communities are surrounded by myth. It’s false that Asian Americans have higher suicide rates than other ethnic/racial groups. According to the American Psychological Association, the suicide rate for Asian Americans (6.10 per 10,000) is about half that of the national rate (11.5 per 10,000).  In fact, suicide was the 8th leading cause of death for Asian Americans, whereas it was the 11th leading cause of death for all racial groups combined. Sadly, American-Indian/Alaskan Native women aged 15-24 have the highest suicide rate compared to all racial/ethnic groups.

A report compiled by the National Alliance on Mental Illness specifically on Chinese-American mental health suggests these considerations for care in that community:

* Considering Chinese Americans’ family-focused values, it is helpful for mental health care providers to identify the decision makers in the family, gain their support for a treatment plan and keep them well-informed of the treatment process when possible.

* Clinicians should respect and creatively use an individual’s cultural strengths in support of recovery such as support from extended family members and siblings, a strong sense of obligation, emphasis on education and workplace, the high tolerance for prolonged separation with loved ones and the loyalties of friends.

* Asian Americans generally need lower doses of psychotropic medications, because of differences in metabolism, body weight, diet and patient expectation of side effects. Since self-adjustment of medication dosage is common among Chinese Americans, clinicians should emphasize the importance of joint decision making with prescribing clinician to make safe dosage adjustments.

Asian-Americans culturally often see mental health illness, including addiction, as signs of weakness. If this stigma can be broken and understood that seeking help is a strong and mature response to dealing with an issue, we can have a more healthy and thriving community. If left unchecked, these issues could potentially harm that person and their loved ones.