How to talk about mental health in the Asian American community : Life Kit For a lot of people from Asian American backgrounds, discussing mental health - especially with loved ones - can be difficult. Psychologist and author Jenny T. Wang has advice on everything from working through guilt to defining home on your own terms.

4 elements to create "home:" discussing mental health in the Asian American community

4 elements to create "home:" discussing mental health in the Asian American community

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Kim Ryu for NPR
Illustration of an empty, dark stage. A mint green curtain is pulled back to reveal a person who is Asian-American standing in front of a variety of masks scattered on the floor in front of them. The masks wear different expressions.
Kim Ryu for NPR

What does it mean to come home? A house is a place with a roof and windows and doors, but home is a feeling.

For psychologist and author Jenny Wang, home is composed of four elements working at once: safety, belonging, authenticity and compassion. The lack of one or more components, "will impact how I moderate and show up in that space," says Wang, "That changes how I engage with people."

When you live in between different cultures as many Asian Americans do – when your identity forces you to constantly navigate between different languages, customs or cultural ideals – that feeling of psychological safety can be hard to find.

"In many ways, I think Asian Americans are now being intentional about building a home for ourselves," says Wang, who just published Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans. She says that a sense of home can come "through our creativity, through our organizing, through our networks and communities."

Regardless of background, Wang says crafting a sense of home requires ongoing self-awareness and value-setting. To find and define home for yourself, she says you first have to understand the different cultural forces that shape your mentality and perspective of yourself and the world.

While no culture is a monolith, Wang's work has revealed common mental health burdens of the Asian American experience. Here are a few of these ideas and tools to help you tackle them.

Recognize your common goals to carve your own path

Deference to elders and authority figures is a highly held value in a lot of Asian American homes. It can have its benefits, like instilling order and family unity, but it also creates a hierarchical structure that can socialize kids not to challenge the decisions or expectations of their elders, says Wang.

"This creates a dynamic in which the person holding less power may feel as though they're kind of silenced within that relationship," she says, "or they might feel as though they need to make themselves smaller in order to fit into the confines of that hierarchy."

What's important to remember when navigating the intergenerational divide, says Wang, is that everyone's on the same team and aiming for the same goals of safety and success.

"A lot of immigrant parents came here with very little or were on their own and felt unsafe," she says. That can affect the types of jobs or level of education they want their kids to pursue. "[They push for] All of these benchmarks that they think will lead us to a better life, which is, for a lot of them, why they came to this country in the first place."

But you might have a different idea of the life or job or education you want to pursue. By picking the "safe" or parent-approved career or partner or lifestyle, you could be setting yourself up for resentment.

Instead, first give yourself permission to make the best decisions for yourself, says Wang. By acknowledging that you share the same goals as your family for safety and prosperity, and communicating your needs with clarity and kindness, it'll be easier to find a middle ground.

Claim your space in the world

The model minority myth is "a caricature of individuals who are hardworking, compliant, highly educated and passive in the face of mistreatment," says Wang.

This trope is problematic for a lot of reasons: from a mental health perspective, Wang says it "creates this façade that Asian Americans don't struggle," and can reinforce the idea that you should keep your problems to yourself to avoid shame. The myth also reinforces cultural assimilation and the idea of saving face.

All of these expectations work together to minimize the lived experiences of Asian Americans, making it difficult for many people to fully know or show up as their authentic selves.

This is a broader societal and structural problem, but on a personal level, Wang says there are a lot of small ways to better inform your sense of self and take up more space in public spaces.

Have a good idea at work? Speak up as soon as you have it instead of waiting to be asked. Say a confident hello to your neighbor instead of looking down as you pass them. Learn and share about your cultural heritage or family history.

"And that can be really scary as people of color," says Wang. "But at the same time, if we comply or become complicit to our own invisibility, we will never be seen as whole authentic people."

Approach failures with compassion and curiosity

In many Asian American households, perfection feels like the standard. Coming home with a bad grade or a missed job opportunity can feel like big familial disappointment.

Feeling like you're never good enough can keep you from trying new things or being vulnerable with your loved ones.

Instead, Wang suggests finding the ways that a failure might serve you. How can this moment be an opportunity for growth? How can this current failure be an opportunity for future success?

Beyond interrogating any singular failure, it's important to separate your identity from your accomplishments. "We have to start to detach ourselves from those outcomes as markers of identity or self-worth," Wang says.

A bad outcome in school doesn't make you any less worthy of love and your identity is not defined by your job title. Practicing self-compassion and maintaining a strong sense of core values can help everyone from sweating the small stuff.

Set boundaries – and stick to them

In cultures that idealize sacrifice and the collective good over the self, drawing boundaries can trigger a sense of guilt. But there is nothing to feel guilty about.

"When we don't have boundaries, it means that we are essentially giving away our time, our energy, all our resources without any sense of whether or not we have capacity to give those things away," says Wang. That's a recipe for anger, resentment and depletion.

In moments of repeated discomfort, she says, find a boundary that's firm but flexible. That might mean setting limits on how long or how often you show up for family events, agreeing to avoid certain topics at dinner or just learning to say "no" when you're over-extended.

Remember that boundaries can and should be communicated with kindness, but also need to be reinforced. Once you draw a line, stick with it. Otherwise, relationships can stall or deteriorate.

Wang knows this process isn't always easy, but boundary-setting, much like maintaining our mental health, is very much a practice of love and care – for ourselves and our community.


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The audio portion of this episode was produced by Michelle Aslam. We'd love to hear from you! Email us at or send a voice note to LifeKit@npr.org.