Asian-American Women More Likely To Attempt Suicide

Almost 16 percent of all U.S.-born Asian-American women have contemplated suicide in their lifetimes — compared to 13 percent of all Americans — according to new findings by the University of Washington. The study also finds that U.S. born Asian-American women are more likely to attempt suicide than other groups. Aileen Duldulao, lead author of the research and blogger Jen Wang, offer insight into the disturbing findings.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

If you think about a candidate for suicide in this country, what picture do you see in your mind? Maybe a middle-aged man with money or relationship problems, maybe somebody who's just lost his job. But according to a study just released by the University of Washington, almost 16 percent of U.S.-born Asian-American women have contemplated suicide in their lifetimes. That's compared to 13 percent of all Americans. U.S. born Asian-American women are also more likely to attempt suicide than other groups.

We wanted to know more about why this might be. So we've called the lead author of the study, Aileen Duldulao, and blogger Jen Wang. She's the co-creator of the blog Disgrasian, and her work is regularly featured on the Huffington Post. Ladies, welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. AILEEN DULDULAO (Study Author): Thank you.

Ms. JEN WANG (Co-Creator, DISGRASIAN): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Aileen, let's hear from you first. The term Asian-American covers a very diverse group of people…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DULDULAO: It does, yes.

MARTIN: …something like 16 ethnic groups and some 30 language groups.

Ms. DULDULAO: Yeah, at least.

MARTIN: So, I think that's important to note. But I think your study did point out something that's very important: that Asian-American people, on the whole, don't have higher suicide rates than other groups, but U.S. born Asian-American women seem to think about it more. Any idea why?

Ms. DULDULAO: You know, there's still lot of competing ideas out there. And we're still not sure of the definitive answer yet.

MARTIN: Jen, you've - and I hope it's OK for us to disclose this - you have struggled with depression yourself.

Ms. WANG: Yes, I have.

MARTIN: And so, is it fair to say you've contemplated suicide? Would that be accurate?

Ms. WANG: At different points, I have definitely contemplated suicide. I grew up with - my mother experienced bouts of depression after having a hysterectomy. And she was pretty vocal about her suicidal thoughts to me. So, I developed a certain kind of resistance to allowing myself to think that. But, you know, I have definitely had those thoughts.

MARTIN: Why do you think that the number of U.S.-born Asian-American women - or the percentage who have contemplated suicide is higher than other groups? Any clues from your own experience that you think might be helpful?

Ms. WANG: You know, Asian-Americans come from an achievement-oriented culture. Failure is not an option. And I think that the flip side of that is that mental health disorders and mental illness are seen as failure, and so - and seeking treatment is seen as failure.

I mean, when I was growing up, there wasn't even a word for depression. It was always, you know, you're not trying hard enough or oh, well, you think you have problems, or just work harder in school or pick up a new hobby, you know, practice the piano.

MARTIN: Do you think that's changing at all, Jen?

Ms. WANG: I think it is. Based on the response to this post that I wrote in response to this study, I think people are much more open than they were when I was growing up, and more willing to sort of share their experiences and kind of break this culture of silence and shame surrounding the issue.

MARTIN: Aileen, what do you think? I understand that you're in charge of the what, and just getting the facts about the what is significant enough. But do you have any thoughts about why?

Ms. DULDULAO: I think Jen brings up a lot of the really good points about these kind of cultural, individual reasons, familial reasons, but I think there's a lot of merit to those reasons. But I think what's really missing is a sort of socio-political context.

I think we're not really - we need to look at those particular behaviors within a culture that - an American and Western culture that, you know, hypersexualizes Asian-American women.

MARTIN: Where do you draw that conclusion from?

Ms. DULDULAO: I draw that conclusion, actually, from…

MARTIN: I mean, doesn't this culture hypersexualize most women?

Ms. DULDULAO: Yes, but it's not - it's racial. It's a type of hypersexualization that's very racialized. You know, there's these stereotypes of Asian-American women being very demure and passive or being very strict, bossy, sort of the dragon lady.

MARTIN: Well, why would that lead to suicidal thoughts?

Ms. DULDULAO: I think it's because it leads to stress. I think it's hard to negotiate that within yourself, that you need to succeed in this way. You need to be this - you know, be very accomplished, be whatever, yet society is also looking at you as this very, you know, hypersexualized person.

They're looking at you, you know, as - they're not expecting you to be outspoken. They're expecting you to be more demure and to be passive. So there's a lot of stereotypes, I think, that have risen from this historical context that Asian-American women, especially those born here, have to deal with on a daily basis.

MARTIN: The study says that the overall rates for completed suicide attempts among Asian-Americans reflect lower or similar rates compared with other ethnic groups. So what, then, flows from this? If people are having thoughts but they're not completing the act, what other considerations flow from these findings?

Ms. DULDULAO: Well, there's definitely - I mean, there's research out there that says that Asian-Americans have a very low uptake of mental health services. So they don't use mental health services to the degree that they probably need them. And in large part, that is due to the lack of culturally competent and culturally sensitive mental health clinicians out there.

The lack - there's a very, very small number of Asian-American therapists and counselors, let alone folks who understand the struggles that second-generation Asian-American folks go through.

MARTIN: Can I ask Jen - forgive me, can I ask Jen? When you talk about culturally competent care, Jen, and since you've been very kind to disclose some of your own struggles with us, and we appreciate that, can you talk about what would culturally competent care look like, or what's the difference, if you can give me an example of how that makes a difference.

Ms. WANG: You know, I can only speak from my own experience, but you know, I feel very American and very assimilated, having been born in this country and raised in Texas. But at the same time, there are these moments where you feel like you have to explain this other culture that you come from because, you know, sometimes when you talk to a traditionally trained, Western psychotherapist about your Asian parents, who tend to be tough and strict and put a lot of pressure on their children, some psychotherapists are just horrified and they think wow, your parents are awful. You know, it's like "Mommie Dearest." But you kind of have to fill in the gaps and say OK, well, this is where my parents came from. They grew up with war. They lost their families. They lost their homes. They lost their homelands, and you know, kind of fill it in for them so it doesn't just seem like your parents are evil and controlling and demanding.

We were joking that you go in with mommy issues, and you end up defending your mom, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WANG: Or, it's like you go in with depression, and then you end up feeling like you're Amy Tan, and you're a storyteller, and your therapist is so enraptured with what you're saying about, you know, with these sweeping, epic stories that your parents have experienced that they stop treating you.

MARTIN: Oh dear. Jen, do you mind if I ask: How are you doing now?

Ms. WANG: I'm doing really well. I have not - you know, I haven't experienced a depression in several years. I am still in therapy. I probably will be for life, just because I actually enjoy it a lot. I'm not currently medicated, but I have been medicated at different points for depression, anxiety, and insomnia stemming from depression and anxiety.

MARTIN: But you feel you're getting somewhere.

Ms. WANG: I do. I do.

MARTIN: And what do you think has made a difference for you?

Ms. WANG: Well, I think that when I started therapy - the first time I went to therapy was actually my senior year of college, but I didn't think it was because I was depressed. I just thought I was sick of school. And at the time, I really viewed therapy as this kind of quick fix, like I'll go in for a few sessions, she'll figure it out, and I'll be cured. And I had no idea that it was a process.

And I think, you know, it took me years to kind of accept that I was a depressive, and also that this is a lifelong process, and I think as soon as I started to get that drift, I started to get better. Because I think so much energy is spent in denial and in thinking, you know, I just want this to go away, or you know, I just wish that I was my old self again, and I'm not going to tolerate this. The resistance, I think, just adds to the depression and adds to the length of the depression.

MARTIN: Blogger Jen Wang is the co-creator of the blog Disgrasian. You can also find her work regularly featured on the Huffington Post, and she joined us from our studios at NPR West. Aileen Duldulao is the lead author of a new study regarding suicide rates among Asian-Americans in general, and Asian-American women in particular. She's a doctoral candidate in social work at the University of Washington, and she joined us from KUOW in Seattle. Ladies, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. DULDULAO: Thanks for having us.

Ms. WANG: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: If you want to read the article that we're talking about in its entirety, we'll have a link on our Web site. Just go to npr.org. Click on programs, and look for TELL ME MORE.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up, environmental consciousness takes over one famous family's reality.

Unidentified Man: Hey man, you know that couch you're sitting on isn't an eco-friendly one.

Mr. MARIO VAN PEEBLES (Filmmaker): Son, how would you like a carbon footprint up your butt?

MARTIN: Mario Van Peebles talks about his new reality show, "Mario's Green House." That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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