How to Navigate Teenage Mental Health in an Asian Household

Credit: Cristobella Durrette / Houston Public Media

By Judy Zeng

Almost half of the students at Lynbrook report that they have been more sad or depressed recently in a Fall 2021 survey (Fig. 1).

As students return to a full-time in-person education this school year, students are finding school harder to get back on track. Around 75% of Lynbrook students find it taking more effort to complete academic tasks than last year (Fig 2). Now it’s starting to affect their mental health. 

Fig. 1: Half of student responses report feeling more sad/depressed than usual.

Fig. 2: Three quarters of the students find themselves taking more effort to complete academic tasks this year.

Students’ struggles haven’t gone unaddressed by the administration. In previous years, the school invited a local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses (NAMI) to speak in assemblies and implemented the HAERT stress relief program as a part of homeroom. I’ve sat through both of these programs myself. Even from reading the room, students don’t seem to take these activities, advice, and stories to heart because these resources never acknowledge the underlying cultural drivers that make students’ situations that much more different. 


While these educational resources may address certain factors to mental health—stress, seeking professional help⁠, the root cause of mental health cases among Asian Americans seems to derive from family relations and academic pressures. For Lynbrook, with an Asian student enrollment of 84%, it means that a vast majority of students are learning a mental health education that never addresses the giant cultural and parental influences in their lives. 


Seeing this gap in our mental health resources, I created a documentary that follows the mental health journeys of three Asian Americans, Tenson, Maggie, and Celeste, and delineates how they navigated academic expectations and parental conflicts. Through their stories, families will hopefully better understand their situation and prevent serious mental health cases from developing. 


Asian Americans, in light of high academic expectations embedded into Asian culture and Bay Area competition, may struggle with mental health. Maggie Yuan shares in the documentary, “For Asian American teenagers who find that they may be dealing with mental health issues, obviously the first person they go to is their parents. And usually what happens is that their parents don’t believe them.” 


If parents are stubborn and unsupportive of their teenager’s needs, mental health can spiral into serious cases. This was Tenson’s case.


Tenson’s father frequently belittled him throughout his childhood because he was a slow learner. Consistent blows to his self-esteem contributed to a later, more serious struggle with mental health⁠—panic attacks, suicidal thoughts⁠⁠—which could have been prevented with parental support form the beginning. Over the course of college and graduate school, he finally began to improve with the help of his aunt, a nurse, who encouraged and uplifted him, building the confidence in himself that he never had before. 


When parents are gentle, supportive, and understanding of their teenager and their needs, mental health becomes easier to handle and overcome. 


For Celeste, who grew up in China, there was nothing to do but study during high school. Poor family relations led to depression and anxiety. But once she was diagnosed, her parents changed and began to understand her. “[My parents] had less requirements for me,” Celeste says, “When I need to talk to them, they will answer my phone call immediately.” She improved with their support, along with professional treatments. 


Parental influence is a double-edged sword⁠. Parents are always acting out of their own love for their child, but sometimes, they misjudge the struggles of their children, and in turn, teenagers misjudge their parents. Each side comes from a different culture and grows up in a different generation, so each would view issues differently.


For instance, a point of conflict is medication—Chinese culture is wary of using western medicine for long-term treatments like mental health. Maggie had to advocate for herself to her mother to let her try the antidepressants. In the end, her mother reluctantly gave in to her daughter’s persistence, but not after lengthy arguments. 


The simple solution is for both sides to listen and consider each other’s ideas first, and then work together to find a compromise. In reality, this is easier said than done, of course.


On a larger scale, however, we have seen progress. Bay Area therapist Xiaocheng Dai has worked with families from this area for around a decade, and she noticed that many parents are quite willing to seek professional help in support of their children, more openly than the stereotype labels. (Although she does have a bias as a clinical therapist, who waits for her patients to approach her.) 


“It’s not something they are proud of. It’s not something they are comfortable to do. But there is something stronger, like the bonds with their children,” explains therapist Xiaocheng Dai. “[Their concerns] about their children’s conditions motivate them to reach out for support.” 


There’s hope for us, as the Asian community, to grow out our old habits and adopt healthier ones. Although we cannot change cultural beliefs and expectations, we can still build stronger family relations, even slightly, by listening to understand each other. 


To view the full documentary, The Denied Illness, please visit this link: 

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