Opinion: Break the silence on mental illness

Mental illness has skyrocketed since the pandemic, and it’s disproportionately affected young Americans and other groups, especially young Asian Americans.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS


After I watched the documentary “Wake Up” twice this month, I had to do something to advocate for those voices of pain, shame, being stigmatized, having feelings of helplessness and despair and for the lives lost due to suicide and mental illness.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in people ages 10 to 34 according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI). Mental illness has skyrocketed since the pandemic, and it has disproportionately affected young Americans, including young Asian Americans. Asian American college students have reported higher rates of suicidal thoughts and attempts than almost all other racial/ethnic groups.

They also report much lower rates of psychiatric diagnosis and treatment, according to NAMI. Only 4.9% of Asian Americans use mental health services annually, compared to 16.6% of white Americans. And by the time they do enter treatment, their psychiatric conditions have often progressed to more severe stages.

The personal stories of Asian American youth validate the data in a painfully visceral way. In an online essay, “Hear me out,” Sandy, a Chinese American youth ambassador and advocate for mental illness, wrote: “… I was struggling with depression and it was something I rarely heard about. Depression was just a word I would hear during those Prozac commercials that played every now and then.”

She described how her parents found her after a suicide attempt: “My body was still fighting for my life even though mentally I had given up. At first, they had no idea what happened. I finally told them because I was scared that I was actually dying … . My parents were furious. I begged them to take me to the hospital, but they refused because they were ashamed of what I had done. ‘How could you do this to us?’ they asked in disbelief…”

Jian Lily Chen

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

Sandy’s story illustrates how low mental health literacy, deep shame and stigma and lack of family support led her to almost lose the fight to mental illness.

To tackle stigma and shame, our community has to come together to learn about mental illness, while addressing some unique challenges faced as an immigrant community, such as cultural difference. This is in addition to the stigma and shame that are commonly shared by all communities like those in “Wake Up”.

As a nurse educated in China, I had minimal psychiatric nursing education in our curriculum. I have several extended family members suffering from mental illness, including schizophrenia and depression, but silence was met whenever I wanted to discuss it.

Determined to save young lives through education, a group of parents and community advocates joined with licensed professionals to raise awareness of the mental health issues that young Asian Americans face due to familial, cultural and societal factors. Since 2016, thousands of community members have attended our educational conferences and webinars from 40-plus states through the Wellness, Advocacy, Voices, Education, and Support (WAVES) Youth Mental Health Collaborative.

WAVES is also a platform for story-sharing. We compile voices from our community, especially from the youth, regarding mental health as well as COVID-induced racism and the subsequent psychological toll incurred as a result. The short video “Silent no more: stories that save lives” is a compilation of testimonies of various voices.

WAVES is also spearheading youth ambassadors and parent ambassador/peer support groups, and Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training in addition to public education.

Sandy and her family’s fight and journey against mental illness will be featured in the upcoming documentary by an award winning Chinese-American film producer. Sandy’s story is not only about pain and suffering, but also about family, resilience, love, patience, and hope.

She writes, “... I began to advocate for mental health awareness in my community. Many aspects of my life have changed for the better; one of the most important being my relationship with my parents. It took years for my parents to reach the level of understanding they have, but they never gave up. They sought out support groups for parents who had kids struggling with a mental illness. They read books and listened to interviews. They worked with my therapists and psychiatrists … . Patience and communication helped mend our broken relationship.”

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. It is time to hear stories from the millions of people who have mental illness and also time to renew our commitment to make sure their stories are brought to light.

May we all come alongside Sandy and her family to help amplify voices of suffering and triumph in our fight against suicide and the often-devastating effects of mental illness that go unrecognized and untreated.

If you know someone who is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

Thank you for joining the fight to save lives.

Jian “Lily” Chen, R.N., M.A., C.N.E., is a lecturer at North Carolina Central University’s Department of Nursing; project director for United Chinese Americans’ WAVES program and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar Fellow.