Person of Color Column: Reconciling my mental health with my culture

Part of my identity is made up of being academically successful, or, for a better use of the term, a “know-it-all.” Growing up half-Korean in a Korean-dominated household, I learned that I couldn’t accept anything less than 100 percent. At a younger age, this type of perfection was achievable—I could complete time tables and name all 50 state capitals with ease.

As I grew older, my school course loads became heavier, and I struggled to keep up my grades and manage my extracurriculars. I always had something else to do, another thing on my plate. School, activities, sleep, and repeat. I never had time to focus on myself.

Over time, my stress became unmanageable. I felt overwhelming amounts of anxiety everyday due to the pressure I felt from home. My parents always demanded perfect grades from me and nothing less. I worked to reach unachievable standards and continued to fail. This manifested into feelings of worthlessness. 

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I felt I simply wasn’t good enough. 

Depression and anxiety took their toll on me as it became harder for me to keep my perfect grades. I could feel the weight of them resting on my shoulders everyday, but I never realized they were there. I still got straight As, so how could I be upset about that? My family and my peers applauded me for my academic success, so I normalized my feelings.

I started seeing a therapist at 12 years old, and she told me that what I experienced wasn’t normal. I continued therapy for six years, and together we worked through my anxiety and my need for perfection. I began to take care of myself, devoting more of my time to self-care rather than spending every waking minute of the day focused solely on school. I didn’t realize how lucky I was to get help with my mental health until I realized how stigmatized mental health is, specifically in Asian culture.

A 2015 study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that 4.9 percent of Asian adults used mental health services, making them the least likely of the demographics included in the study to do so. A Boston University School of Public Health study found that Asian students had the lowest levels of perceived need for mental health treatment.

Reading these statistics did not surprise me. Through my own experiences, I have learned that Korean culture has a tendency to ignore mental illness in the name of success. I continued to sacrifice my mental health in order to be successful.

Growing up surrounded by these values contributed to my inability to recognize my own mental health needs. In order to succeed academically, I ignored how stress impacted my mental wellbeing. I faced overwhelming amounts of anxiety to the point where I only slept a few hours each night. 

Luckily, my parents ignored this mental health stigma and recognized my need for help. While the stigmatization of mental health in Korean culture comes from a desire to be successful in a predominantly white culture, the problems that arise from these values cannot be ignored. 

In mid-September, a Harvard University sophomore of Chinese descent took his own life. The Boston Globe reported that six out of nine undergraduate students at Harvard that committed suicide this past year were of Asian descent. The immense amounts of academic pressure put on Asian students due to our culture damage our mental health. The negative perpetuation of perfection in East Asian culture reaches such extremes that the need to be perfect becomes obsessive. Despite therapy, I continued to struggle with this ideal and found it difficult to grapple with the fact that I could never reach perfection even though perfection formed part of my identity.

Even while society moves toward debunking stigmas surrounding mental illness, the Korean community still struggles to address mental health needs because of the values the culture perpetuates. Mental illness continues to be a source of contention in the Korean community, making conversations about it rare and unusual. By normalizing conversations about mental illness in the Korean community, Korean students and others facing similar cultural pressures will seek out help for their mental health. These conversations may be few and far between, but they are vital to start destigmatizing mental illness in every community, even if it may be uncomfortable at first.

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