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Asians and the Stigma of Mental Illness: National Minority Health and Health Disparities Month


The Office of Minority Health Resource Center (OMHRC) looks at minority health disparities in the month of April. Asians with mental health problems are very much on our minds this week.

Who are Asian Americans? According to the Office of Minority Health (OMC), there are 14.4 million Asian Americans, roughly five percent of the total population. The US states with the highest concentration of Asians: California, New York, Hawaii, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Washington, Florida, Virginia, and Massachusetts. The OMC offers a one page primer on mental health and minorities, mentions stigma, talks about problems of access, but mostly in terms of poverty and linguistic barriers.

There may be close to 15 million Asian Americans, but there are many distinct cultures within that population: Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, South Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Filipino, East Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese, Sri Lankan, Afghani, Hmong, Bhutanese, and Mien. Each culture has different languages, different health beliefs, different immigration routes into the US, different education, income levels and insurance coverage. Mental health experts at Johns Hopkins University identified some barriers confronting Korean Americans with mental illness "...stigma,...refusal of treatment,...anxiety about confidentiality."

Benjamin Chu, MD, MPH has stated that in a culture driven to succeed, Asian Americans may be intolerant of mental illness in its members. In a provocative 2004 Medscape Today article, Overcoming Stigma in Asian American Mental Health, Dr. Chu observes that our mental health care system is "passive...waiting for people to declare themselves in pain...," dependent on the individual or family to make the first move. Dr. Chu was speaking at a 2004 conference of the New York Academy of Medicine, where mental health experts convened to discuss this very subject, Stigma in Asian American Mental Health.

The panel reported that for Asians in general, mental illness "..violates a code of conduct." Families try to keep members with mental illness at home, hidden, a secret. Hochang Benjamin Lee MD states that Korean Americans are a "... particularly underserved community, as evidenced by their low psychiatric admission rate and low utilization of outpatient services." Since 75% of Korean Americans are Christian, he recommended using the churches as one forum for education about reducing the stigma.

Art heals a lot of wounds that medicine can't quite get to. A shout out to two great Korean American women artists:
  • Grace Lee, winner of the Emerging Director Award at the Asian American Film Festival in New York for her wonderful indie film, The Grace Lee Project.
  • Jen Pack, Fiber Artist and my friend.
For more about the deadly intersection of youth violence and mental health read:
Messed Up Guys with Guns: National Youth Violence Prevention Week

Thank you midbach for use of the photograph.
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