Monday, May 14, 2007
Cultural barriers to mental health
About this time a month ago, I was rushing to catch a plane to Roanoke, Virginia. Just an hour before, sitting in the CNN newsroom and pecking away on the keyboard, I heard a collective gasp. 20 dead at Virginia Tech. Next thing I knew, my colleague Elizabeth Cohen and I were driving through the breathtaking Blue Ridge Mountains, toward one of the most heartbreaking stories we had ever covered.

That sadness came back during a visit to Houston last week. Elizabeth and I were working on a story about Asian-Americans and mental health. Plans were already in the works to investigate this topic when Virginia Tech happened. Elizabeth and I learned a lot about the cultural barriers surrounding simply talking about mental health. For example, in many Asian languages, there is no word for "depression." According to researchers, Doctors Albert Yeung and Raymond Kam, the term "mental disorder" is frequently translated in Chinese as jing shen bing which in the mind of most Chinese means "craziness." You can find out more about what we learned Wednesday night on "Paula Zahn Now."

But here's a little bit of what you won't hear. Consider it the "producer's cut." After the interviews were over, Stu, our photographer, and I went to shoot additional material at a Korean-American senior center. Sitting around long tables, about 60 seniors were watching a PowerPoint presentation. Even though the conversation was in Korean, the topic was obvious. Images of brains and sad looking people filled the screen. They were talking about depression.

As Stu took pictures, a very sweet woman offered us a handmade gift of jongie jupgi, Korean origami. She had folded paper in the shape of a swan. They were absolutely mesmerizing. Pictures shot and birds in hand, we started to leave. But before we could, the president of the group said he wanted to make a statement. Speaking on behalf of the senior center, he wanted to extend deepest condolences to the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre and announce that his group had raised money for the victims' families. This distinguished and proud man worried the actions of Seung-Hui Cho reflected badly on all Koreans. The real issue, he went on to say, was the lack of mental health services and gun control.

Walking out of the center, I was struck by what we had just witnessed, and as the days pass, I am still thinking about it. As a white woman, no one would ever expect me to defend my sex or race for the violent actions of someone like Jeffery Dahmer or Aileen Wuornos. But from terror to terrorists, minority communities are often expected to apologize when someone of the same race or group commits a heinous crime. Why do you think this is? Also, I know it's only been a month since the Virginia Tech tragedy, but do you think the country is any closer to investing more in mental health services and research?
I am of Indian descent and I completely understand how many Asian-American cultures feel that it is their duty to apologize for those of their race who have done wrong. Although crimes like these hurt people everywhere, I feel like Asian-Americans feel like they must take responsibility for them as it is a culture that is fostered by the community and those around you. When something like this is not recognized, it does feel like a weight on that group of people for failing to do so. I am also a medical student and just completed my psychiatry rotation. I do not feel like there have been any investments made towards mental health, especially for Asian Americans. How is it that Asian-American women are most likely to commit suicide over all other races?? This is something that needs to be further investigated. It is saddening to think that even a tragedy such as the one at Virginia Tech does not raise people's brows to look into this issue further.
I'm not Korean, but as an American of Japanese ancestry I think I know why many Koreans here in the United States and elsewhere feel a sense of guilt concerning what happened at Virginia Tech.
I was raised with Confucian values which is the norm in many Asian cultures including Japan and Korea. We are taught, as children, that everything we do (good or bad) reflects on our families and others of our ethnic group. When I was growing up my family was the one of 3 Japanese- American families of our town in suburban Chicago. My father and mother instilled in myself and my siblings typical Meiji era Japanese values of hard work, honesty, thrift, and doing well in school. We were also taught to feel shame when we did something that did not reflect well on ourselves, our family, or other Japanese-Americans. Many people who are not well versed in Asian culture are unable to distinguish between Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or other ethnicities. When I see an Asian on the TV news or in the popular culture portrayed as a criminal, it bothers me. I feel a sense of shame. I feel that some non-Asians are judging me negatively because of what they see on TV, reality as in the case of the shootings in Virgina, or in American popular culture (i.e. Charley Chan stereotypes). What happened with the Cho family I do not know but I'm sure they feel an enormous sense of shame throughout the family here in the U.S. and in Korea. I feel for them. It is a strange thing because I must admit that honestly I don't feel the same for Cho's victims and their loved ones. I'm not proud of that.
Hey Jen,
I don't know whay minorities think they have to apologize when someone from their race commits a heinous crime. Maybe, it is because they have not been an American citizen all their life?
I don't feel they need to apologize at all! But, related to that, when someone does something "crazy" from my state, Texas, (like Bush) and the astronaut,the rush to execute on death row only to find out the person was proven innocent by DNA test. OOPS! I feel as I must apologize!!
I suppose there is a little bit in all of us that is embarrassed by a person's actions when they reresentative of a certain group.
I do believe that as a society we must take a closer look at the mental health issues. I believe they are being neglected. It is time to do something when we see others display behavior that sends a red flag. Get involved. Take action! It could save lives.~
Remember LOVE is never having to say ,"I'm sorry".
I'm a first generation Chinese born here in America and I've spoken with my parents of depression before. It is an unknown concept in the sense if you're unhappy, you're told to get over it. I have a friend who is of Filipino descent and her grandmother has said the same thing. There is an understanding that mental illness exists in the Chinese culture to the extent that a person is crazy but there is no concept of depression - just get over whatever is making you sad and move on. In a lot of ways I agree with that since this country is already over medicated enough as is.
I've had the pleasure of working with many Asians and found most of them being extremely humble, loving people. They take responsibility for their action and do not try to hide their mistake.

We westerners have a little bit of different outlook. We tend to think we're gods and everything we do is okay. Including harming innocent people around the world. And if we're confronted about it... we sue :-)

That's a cultural difference.

Mental disorder is another tough issue. Most people who suffer from it, do not go out and kill others. Even if they're not on medications. They may act a little strange once in a while, but they usually only harm themselves. So what can anybody really do to prevent something like this from happening?

My small contribution.

- Christian Goodman
The apology has less to do with the group being "a minority community" and more to do with the fact that Asian cultures are collectivist, as opposed to our American individualist culture. What happens to one Asian will likely be felt by MANY. As soon as I heard of the tragedy at Virginia Tech and then learned the gunman was Korean, I knew that ALL Koreans would feel this as an unspeakable loss of face for their country, a deeply shared sense of acute shame.
HI read one comment from my fellow American that implied we minorites are not full born American's. Funny! Ok, we are one time in our lives have had to deal with a racist person. I am a prime example. My skin is pure white but many in my state of Ultra White Utah assume I am not white. Technically I was not unitl the 2000 census, why because I am Spanish not Mexican. I have white skin but the whites here say I look ethnic. My kids are part Asian i also have a disabled child and people make the dumbest most ignorant assumptions.

Asian in particular are horribly hard on themselves and often ignore what is already publicly avaialbe in terms of disabiity treatment or help. Best to ignore they figure than admit thier blood line is inpure.

Simply put we need to stop assumptions of minorities and get rid ot the word and stop talking about people in terms of races and skin color. I lived in Canada for a while they do not mention wanted criminals by nationality but by skin color. Blacks are dark born ditto with those from say India etc.

The minorities themselves are to blame as they feel less empowered less connected to the mainstream world. I am fifth generation American and yet my mom is still that way. She gets mad when I speak up or get involve at a political level. She fears reprucssions. Why? We until two decades were made to feel inferior and less worthy that is why we apologize. I won't and do not.

Unless i did something directly wrong to someone.
Mental health issues still carry such a negative stigma that one who is severely depressed may not seek help until the disease has progressed almost beyond help. This is especially true in our nations military. My daughter, having given 9 years to the Navy, when presenting herself as suicidal to the Naval Hospital's emergency room doctors, was sent home with an appointment to see a psychiatrist 30 days later. At that time she did not have 'a plan' and a friend showed up to take her home, so she was deemed 'not a suicide risk'. By the end of the month, she had a detailed plan to take her life, and came very close to doing just that. On the evening of Thanksgiving she fell asleep writing letters to family members, and the next morning confided in her father. She was immediately hospitalized in a civilian hospital in our home town. Months later, back in the hands of Naval Hospital doctors, she is finally showing great progress, having opted for the most severe of treatments, ECT (Electro-Convulsive Therapy) also known as shock treatments.
It would seem that our military would be experts in identifying, diagnosing and treating mental illness since depression and addiction are prevalent there. But once one takes certain medications or has certain diagnoses in her medical file, she is 'marked'. Even though my daughter has fought hard to get better and actually is doing better than she has in years, the past few months spent in mental health units and outpatient mental health care, she will probably not be retained in the Navy, and almost certainly will not be commissioned as an officer which was the tract she was on when her depression and bipolar disorder became too much to handle and made her barely functional and suicidal.
Until our nation wakes up to the realities of mental illness, funding research and treatment programs, as well as acknowledging the hope for improvement with proper treatment, we will continue to lose to suicide some of our brightest, most promising citizens. It's a shame, a national shame, and we need to wake up and do the right thing by bringing the light of inquiry, study, and research to the dark mystery of mental illness.
I'm a first generation born Chinese here as well and my parents grew up in China. They too say that there really is no such thing as depression. They grew up during the time when Japan invaded parts of China - my mom told me stories of seeing the Japanese planes flying low and how they would enter the villages and chase after them - they didn't know what happened to the people that were caught since they were never seen again. She recalled escaping to Hong Kong and having bombs dropping around her - buildings exploding right next to her. Her and my father stated that life is not perfect and that the only thing you can do is to keep moving forward and be thankful that you're still alive. The concept of depression is so foreign to them that they understand that people can be mentally ill meaning crazy but to be so sad that you're depressed - doesn't make any sense. Get over it and move on is what they tell me. Have I ever been because I think of what they went through in life and to see how strong they are makes me realize I have nothing to be sad about - I'm very grateful. I guess the big question then is, is depression a chemical imbalance or are we all becoming a society of "oh woe is me"?
Many minority communities have a strong cultural identity and cohesiveness. Therefore anything one member of the group does reflects poorly upon all of them. And it's not just in the minds of people in that community - look at how the US has treated all people of Middle Eastern descent since 9/11. Look at how all Asians were treated during WWII and the Cold War. It's only the majority population that does not feel this cohesiveness and identity, and share the blame for their inappropriate actions.
While I agree Asian-Americans should tear themselves up with remorse for every uncomplimentary act in its community, we must also understand that there is a flip side-We also feel pride when our members do well. I remember cheering for Christy Yamaguchi simply because I had not seen a Japanese-American in ice rink for the Olympics (okay, she was also graciously talented, but so were other there who did not receive my blessing). As a Nisei, whose children's are close friends with Chinese, Korean, Indian, Hispanic and White kids, I have to say that amoung the Asians there is a very pronounced sense of community. We are all partly responsible for raising one anothers children, so there is a bit of sadness when something goes amiss with one child. I don't believe it was an Asian who said it first, but "it does take a village to raise a child." When something is wrong we should not only look to the parents, but the whole village.
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