AAPI Mental Health on College Campuses

By Kim Hoang, ECAASU National Board Advocacy Coordinator

I went to a university that has often been described as a “southern slice of heaven”. In the springtime when the sky was Carolina blue, I would sit in the quad between classes surrounded by groups of smiling faces. It was hard to admit that I suffered from depression and anxiety when everyone around me seemed so happy.

I felt an immense pressure to succeed, being within the culture of a competitive college campus. During exam time or after pulling an all-nighter to write a paper, it was common for friends to light-heartedly joke about how little sleep they got, because it provided a sense of camaraderie as a coping mechanism. Yet, it wasn’t nearly as easy to talk about our mental health. At one point during my sophomore year, instead of going to class, I would stay in my bed because it took an enormous amount of effort to get up. I felt alone and like I couldn’t speak up about my mental illness because I had never heard anyone around me talk about their own mental health concerns.

I know now that I wasn’t alone. Mental illness is a growing significant issue on college campuses - in a 2014-2015 survey, 73.1% of counseling center directors reported rising severity in student mental health concerns. In addition to the typical pressure to succeed on college campuses, many factors unique to AAPI experiences can contribute to mental illness: the pressure of living up to the “model minority” stereotype, familial pressure to succeed, experiences with racial discrimination, past trauma, intergenerational conflict, and family history of mental illness. 

AAPI students are less likely to seek treatment because of stigma coming from their family and communities, but also because of the lack of cultural competence from providers. Personally, part of the reason it took me so long to seek therapy was because I felt like I couldn’t voice my struggles with identity as a young Asian American woman and be adequately heard. 

Universities can help destigmatize mental illness by providing basic education about mental health in settings where many students can be reached, such as first-year orientation. Professors could provide information about on-campus mental health resources in their syllabi. More emphasis on campus community support for students with mental illness could increase the likelihood of individuals seeking help. 

Universities also need to make treatment accessible to AAPI students and students of color in general by prioritizing funding for campus counseling services, specifically culturally competent counselors, as well as creating partnerships to make outside counseling services more accessible to students who are referred off-campus. 

Also, we can all take steps within our communities to be more open and accepting of talking about mental illness by intentionally making it a point of discussion within our cultural student organizations. Even showing our friends that we’re there for them and being open about our own experiences can make a difference.