New insights on the mental health of young Asian American women
EXAMINING the emotional and behavioral health of student population groups is proving to be an important, if long-overdue, strategy for colleges and universities. Data from the Steve Fund, a research organization focused on the unique mental health issues of students of color, have helped to amplify variations in issues such as sense of belonging and help-seeking behaviors between white and non-white college students.
One under-examined student group of particular concern is Asian American women. 2015 data conclude that Asian American women between the ages of 15 and 24 have the highest rates of suicide among other similarly-aged women of different race or ethnicities.
Considering that Asian American females are among the fastest growing college population group, this disturbing statistic begs further exploration for schools striving to support the behavioral health of their students.
Hyeouk “Chris” Hahm is a South Korean-born clinician/researcher who has spent the last ten years peeling back the layers of empirical evidence that could provide an explanation for why young Asian American women are at such high risk of suicide. To help articulate her findings, she recently created a tool used as both an intervention and a guide called “The Disempowerment Trap Map.”
“What was causing this particular group of women to have such high rates of depression and anxiety became the focus of my intellectual curiosity,” said Hahm, whose doctoral degree is on the impact of acculturation on health risk behaviors of Asian and Pacific Islander (API) adolescents.
Hahm, who is now Chair and Associate Professor of Research at Boston University School of Social Work, found very little data existed on this population, so she began her own research in 2005, and has published extensively on the subject ever since.
Through a number of quantitative and qualitative studies, she has interviewed over 1,000 API women, all of whom experienced similar cultural dynamics as 1.5 or second-generation Americans. Hahm says the distinction between first-generation Americans like herself and those whose parents came to this country as immigrants is significant and is a major driver of the stressors that can lead to anxiety and depression.
Hahm created the Disempowerment Trap Map as part of the curriculum for a psychotherapy intervention called AWARE (Asian-American Women’s Action in Resilience and Empowerment). She developed the program to target the unique, intertwining issues of family dynamics, trauma, mental health and sexual health among API women.
Because of the high concentration of Asian women on college campuses, she is focusing on higher education for the early adoption of her program. It has been implemented at Wellesley College and Boston University and will be available at Harvard in the fall.
The Disempowerment Trap Map is the culmination of Hahm’s research presented in a comprehensive and instructional way designed to help API women articulate and address the underlying factors influencing their mental health. It also serves an eye-opening tutorial for anyone hoping to understand the psycho-social dynamics these women have faced in their young lifetimes.
“Severe depression is very complex, and we don’t have a language to describe it,” Hahm said. “There had been factors identified for these women, like family issues or race, but there was no comprehensive or systemic map to understand why this group of people were so depressed.”
Hahm chose the title of her work carefully, citing the association between depression and power. “When people are depressed and are thinking about suicide, they have arrived at a point where they feel powerless,” she said. “Because they feel powerless, they are hopeless.”
The key to the map is the layering of five negative stressors leading to a sense of disempowerment. It starts with the individual which Hahm calls “The Inner Voice Trap.”
“Many of these women have a sense of perfectionism that is very much internalized,” she said. “They strive for excellence and they are very pressured to be excellent.”
According to the map, the standard of self-worth for many API women is how well they perform. When they are no longer performing well, they often fall into depression or anxiety. From AWARE sessions, Hahm cites comments such as “I feel terrible if I don’t meet expectations;” “I am not good enough compared to all of these outstanding people;” and “Without my achievement, I will be a failure.”
These individual perceptions are largely derived from the women’s relationship with their immigrant parents which many report to be overwhelmingly burdensome and in some cases abusive. “The Family Trap” describes the dynamics between first generation immigrant parents and the often unrealistic expectations they place on their children, who are raised to reward and legitimize their parents’ sacrifices in coming to America.
As a result, these women universally reported an enormous sense of guilt and the constant need to “pay back” their parents with their own performance and achievement.
“Their children feel like the pressure never ends,” said Hahm.
Another surprising factor uncovered through her research was the prevalence of childhood abuse.
“In one of our studies, we found that 60 percent of the women had been physically abused by their own family members,” said Hahm. “Almost none of the abuse was reported, however, because they lived in fear of losing their parents if social services were to be involved.”
Hahm says the insular nature of the Asian American family produces a paradox for many of these women.
While they felt burdened by their families, and in many cases were abused by them, they felt powerless to detach from them.
In a separate study, Hahm researched the psycho-social dynamics of first generation Asian American parents and learned of mental or physical health problems, language, money, and employment problems, isolation, or marital discord. She concludes that, together, these women and their families were suffering from what they described as “the collective struggle we have in America.”
“Immigrant-related stresses have been affecting all of these family members,” she said. “Because the parents feel like they don’t have control over their place in society, they are disempowered themselves. They want to raise their children to be successful so that they won’t experience what they have experienced here.”
The issue of abuse experienced by these women surfaced again regarding their relationships and sexual health. In one of Hahm’s recent studies drawn from 173 young Asian American women who were seeking mental health intervention, almost half of the participants reported having experienced physical assault, sexual coercion, or injury due to partner violence in the past six months.
Linking relationship abuse to disempowerment, this led to the inclusion of “The Partner Trap” within the map.
Threaded throughout each of these disempowerment drivers is the pervasive “Race Trap,” involving microaggression and stereotypes in everyday life. Peer comments such as “you must be good at math,” or coaches and teammates assuming that they are not good enough athletes are examples of micro-aggressions. These include verbal or non-verbal communication that is often hostile or derogatory, or negative racial insults. Hahm says that experiencing microagression often leads to stress, shame, anger, and depression.
In addition, despite their academic accomplishments in higher education settings, the Asian Americans Hahm studied were not hopeful of getting ahead and were acutely aware of a “bamboo ceiling” affirmed by statistics.
Despite being the fastest growing immigrant group in the country, Asian Americans account for less than 2 percent of CEO’s leading Fortune 500 companies.
Hahm expressed her own frustration at the paucity of Asian American women role models and mentors she has interacted with in her own career in academia.
Hahm says that one of the most frustrating aspects of the race trap is that even though they experience microagression on a daily basis, their experiences are not typically validated because these are subtle and covert forms of racism.
Unlike the African American community that they view as united and vocal in their fight against racism, Asian Americans tend not to come together around these issues. As a result, Asian American women reported feeling as though they were invisible.
One exception to this may be in the current debate around potential discrimination in college admissions.
“Asian Americans feel very strongly that the college entrance exam system in this country is unfair to them,” said Hahm, who notes that the stress of the issue is worsened by the fact that SAT scores and college admissions tend to be a significant metric of achievement and reward for Asian American families.
“They believe the bar is set even higher for them as Asian Americans, which means they end up competing against one another.”
The final trap in the map is called “Suffering Alone Trap,” which alludes to the women’s help-seeking behavior. Hahm’s study of 701 AIP women showed that only one third of the high-risk mental health group who has current depression symptoms and history of suicidal ideation sought mental health treatment, and only 15 percent of that group saw therapist at least 8 times in the past year.
Part of the explanation is that Asian families, like so many cultures, are affected by stigma and tend to dismiss mental illness.
Another is that those who do seek help report that western style psychotherapy treatments were not very helpful.
The latter has led Hahm to recruit Asian American counselors to the AWARE program and to train others in the unique issues this population group has experienced. Hahm hopes that this is where “The Disempowerment Trap Map” can be an instructive and effective tool to unlock the multi-dimension of the traps.
“The map is meant to help counselors and clients begin the healing process of understanding and addressing the complex and interrelated experiences that influence the mental health of this particular population.”
The success of the program thus far has encouraged Hahm to actively promote AWARE on other college campuses. A big motivation she said, has to do with access to the population. “Where do you find concentrations of young Asian American women? In higher education of course.”