The “Model Minority” Myth and Its Impact on AAPI Mental Health

During one of my recent morning walks, I was thinking about what to write about to wrap up the month of May.  I previously celebrated Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month and discussed the value and power of the human mind in commemoration of Mental Health Awareness Month.

Then it occurred to me.

Why not talk about the state of mental health in the AAPI community?

Let’s Rewind the Clock First

COVID put health & wellness – mental health in particular – front and center.  “It seems that much of what we have learned from past disasters and epidemics is holding true in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” writes Joshua A Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).  He was specifically referring to the large spike in reported mental illness cases during the height of the pandemic.  One CDC study that Dr. Gordon cited, in particular, showed that the mental illness rates for conditions like anxiety, substance abuse, and stress were twice the expected rates, pre-COVID.

The “Silent Killer”

Expected rates?

Mental illness is known as the “Silent Killer” for a reason.  A loved one, close friend – even a stranger who’s physically next to you – could be suffering some form of mental illness and you wouldn’t even know it.  Which means the estimated number of people experiencing a mental health issue is, in all likelihood, woefully underreported.  Sadly, there’s a stigma attached to mental illness that affects all ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities, but Asian Americans may be most impacted by it.

First some context.

Mental Health America (MHA), a community-based nonprofit that’s been around since 1909, produced this infographic about the state of mental health in the AAPI community:

The statistics appear grimmer when you consider how many AAPI members sought treatment.  One study, for example, found that while Asian Americans are one of the fastest-growing groups in the United States and have high rates of mental illness, they utilize less mental health services than the rest of the population:

  • Asian Americans were three times less likely to take advantage of mental health services than White Americans.
  • Less than 9% of Asian Americans sought mental health treatment (vs. 18% of the general population)
  • 3.1% of Asian Americans used specialty mental health services (vs. 5.59% of African Americans, 5.94% of Caribbean Blacks, 4.44% of Mexicans, 5.55% of Cubans, and 8.8% of the general population)

But, as I stated earlier, mental illness is the “Silent Killer.”  So, chances are (unfortunately) that reality is far worse than what these findings suggest.

Why?

The “Model Minority” Myth

An article from Medical News Today offered up a list of reasons for why mental health stigma exists within the Asian American community.  They include things like cultural norms, language barriers, and religion – which I’m familiar.  But what caught my eye was a concept that I admit (as an Asian American) was unfamiliar with: the “Model Minority” Myth.  But as I read on, the term clicked.

Let me ask: What comes to mind when you think of an Asian American?

  • Smart?
  • Hard-working?
  • Nice?
  • Dependable?

On the surface, these characteristics appear harmless.  But as you dig deeper, you begin to understand how and why these perceptions of us can do more harm than good.  Dr. Mike Hoa Nguyen (who’s Vietnamese) from the University of Denver explains:

“The Model Minority Myth is a really harmful and dangerous stereotype that mischaracterizes Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as universally successful, as high achieving, hardworking and essentially achieving some level of success that’s unparalleled.” 

This blanket mischaracterization, Dr. Nguyen says, leaves us invisible to the rest of society, left to our own devices.  We’re perceived as an example – a “model” – for other groups to follow.  After all, we always get outstanding grades, work hard in our professions, keep our heads down, and never complain, right?  As someone who’s from a place (Hawai’i) with the highest cost-of-living and largest concentration of Asian Americans in the country, the myth is categorically false.  I know all too well the struggles many Asian Americans (and native Hawaiians) encounter on a daily basis.

Earlier this year, I returned home to participate in a remote-work program called Movers and Shakas.  While there, I had the privilege of supporting a local non-profit (The Pantry) that addresses food insecurity.  I wrote about my experience touring the facility and volunteering for the day.  What I didn’t mention in my article is that The Pantry welcomes walk-ins AND drive-ins.  The first hour of operation is devoted to walk-ins.  Most of the walk-ins were Asian women and men who spoke little to no English with bags or carts (or both) to collect their food orders.

Do I Fit the Myth?

Well let’s see:

  • I attended a private high school where I graduated 2nd in my class and spoke at our graduation ceremony.
  • I attended a prestigious university.
  • I achieved professional success in healthcare.

HOWEVER:

  • I wasn’t an academic genius.  My Chinese-Filipino high school friend (and class valedictorian) scored a 1500 on his SAT’s and attended Yale.  Compared to him, I was…MEH.
  • I was a B-average undergraduate student with NO desire to pursue an advanced degree.
  • I stumbled into healthcare (I originally wanted to be a lawyer) where I had no choice, in my mind, but to be my own advocate: I fought and clawed my way up the corporate ladder so I could be adequately compensated for my services. (I need to get paid!)

So…no

Pressure (and Danger) of Fitting In

Inevitably, the “Model Minority” Myth can put so much pressure on some members of the AAPI community to try and live up to this ideal standard that to fall short of expectations would mean a loss of identity and belonging.

Dr. Nguyen continues:

“And, then it also at the same time reframes our experiences as someone whose not a person of color, who doesn’t experience race or racism.”

Until stuff hits the fan, of course.

These last few years are a prime example of the kind of harm that perpetuating a stereotype like the “Model Minority” Myth can inflict upon those on the receiving end of it.

Rise in Asian hate crimes.

Assigning blame to us for the pandemic and resulting aftermath.

“Kung-Flu” ring a bell?

Recommended Reading

I came across a thought-provoking piece by Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn, Ed.D about the “Model Minority” Myth.  Based out of Oxford, Mississippi, Dr. Blackburn is Caucasian and Malaysian Chinese (on her mom’s side) who penned the essay prior to the pandemic.  She breaks down the myth and its consequences from multiple perspectives: educational, judicial, political, historical, and personal.

A couple ideas she puts forth include:

  1. The “Model Minority” Myth erases individual differences and ignores diversity.
  2. Dismantling the “Model Minority” Myth requires that we acknowledge diversity AND individuality.

I encourage you to read it – click here.

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