Asian Students, Depression, and Suicide

Relevant Pubmed Search: Suicide in Asian Americans

I got an email newsletter from my alma mater with a topic that caught my eye: “Health expert explains Asian and Asian-American students’ unique pressures to succeed” (View PDF copy), written by Krishna Ramanujan.

The school’s director of mental health, Timothy Marchell, said, “There is no single solution to challenges faced by Asian and Asian-American students, the problems are complex, and they require a multi-faceted approach.” The article goes on to say that Cornell is researching student mental health with “an analysis of Asian-American/Asian students’ experiences.”

More than 50% of Cornell’s Student Suicide Victims are Asian American
Out of 4,790 Cornell undergraduates surveyed in 2005, Asian-American/Asian students seriously considered or attempted suicide at higher-than-average rates. Also, 13 of the 21 Cornell student suicide victims since 1996 have been Asian or Asian-American – and Asian/Asian-Americans comprise only 14% of the total Cornell student body. Source: “Health expert explains Asian and Asian-American students’ unique pressures to succeed“.

I hope my colleagues at Cornell and in colleges across the U.S. (particularly the Ivy Leagues) – that want to know what the most critical factor in this trend may be can find this article –


I love my parents, as I know many of my Asian American friends love their parents. But I am not joking when I say the main driver of how dysfunctional and “screwed up” we have learned to think about our roles in life comes from our parents. Our parents in turn, learned from their parents, and so on.

Cultural and Social Issue
This goes back to many thousands of years ago, when the main ticket out of poverty in ancient China is to become a politician. You can become a politician by passing a rigorous exam and scoring the highest score. (This tradition is alive in well in Taiwan, at least back in the 70’s and 80’s.) If you don’t get the highest score, and you don’t become a politician, well, I guess you’re off to be a butcher or a coffin-maker or some manual laborer that will not bring fame and glory to uplift the “face” of your family.

And it’s all about “Face.” I’d explain this concept to my Western counterparts as “the pride of your parents, your immediate relatives, your extended relatives, and all your dead ancestors rolled up into this brand you will forever bear on your forehead for the rest of your life.” Essentially, if you don’t excel (we’ll go into that in a minute), then you will “lose face” and bring shame not just to yourself, but more importantly your parents, your relatives, your ancestors, and any being dead-or-alive that would bear the same last name as you.

If that kind of pressure applied day after day and year after year – doesn’t make a person mentally crack – I don’t know what will.

Doing Your Best Means Being Better Than Someone Else
Asian American students are expected to excel. More accurately, “be better than.” Excelling in our culture is based squarely on “being better than someone else, preferably someone whose parents your parents can’t stand.” I grew up being constantly compared and contrasted with other kids. Why couldn’t I play the piano and the violin and be the first seed on the Tennis team like so-and-so’s kid? Why couldn’t I speak three languages (Chinese doesn’t count) like so-and-so’s son? Oh- why didn’t I score a perfect 1600 on the SATs and get early admission with full scholarship into Harvard, Yale, and Princeton like those twins? And my favorites: “You scored a 99% on your test? Why didn’t you get 100%” and “You scored 100%? How many more students scored 100% in the class?” We’re just never good enough.

When you are brought up to think of yourself mainly in reference to someone else, you aren’t sure exactly what to think of yourself, or how to see yourself. For most of my life, I saw myself as a portfolio of academic grades, scholarly achievements (or lack thereof), SAT scores (and it was nowhere near 1600), what schools I got into, and whether my chosen vocation would bring pride to my ancestors.

I haven’t even gotten into the subject of emotional abuse in the Asian household. That would be a whole website in itself.

Is it any wonder that I suffered from depression most of my childhood, adolescent, and adult life?

Here, in a separate article, are some of the ways Asian American students could approach these issues, or more accurately, how I personally “overcame”…. sort of.

Related… (and a 2011 update) – This post is, in many ways, the start of a long journey of me writing a book that I’ve wanted to write for 9 years but wasn’t ready to write it or knew who I was writing it for. To read about it, go to “About This Book” for The Youngest Light.

26 thoughts on “Asian Students, Depression, and Suicide”

  1. Pingback: L2 Foundation Blog
  2. Thanks for the post and links. I visited Cornell and could see how difficult it could be for Asian-Americans there. Most Asian-Americans are from diverse metropolitan areas and moving to a place like Ithaca, New York can be a total culture shock to many.

  3. Hi Joseon,

    That may be true as well. Cornell is literally built on top of a hill in a very rural area. For those who are from “the city”, Ithaca NY may be very isolated and isolating.

    I grew up in Upstate NY and in the fingerlakes region. Ithaca wasn’t as much of a shock geographically for me. But, it was still a culture shock because of the sheer # of students in a university. It is easy to get lost in the crowd.


  4. “You scored a 99% on your test? Why didn’t you get 100%” and “You scored 100%? How many more students scored 100% in the class?” We’re just never good enough.
    God, this is so true. I have a friend who scores better than me in almost every test, so my mom says, “Why can’t you be like her? blah blah blah.”
    She doesn’t notice how hard I work to get those “horrible” test scores, and only cares about the end results.

  5. Jane, it’s tough to see how the Fingerlakes region can possibly have a deleterious effect upon anyone, isn’t it. Fabulous region, and Ithica is lovely.

    I am so pleased to have happened upon your extraordinary site here!

    I’m very curious, though, how to soften the Tiger parenting of my estranged wife toward her suffering son (differences in parenting–Western v Asian are at the heart of our estrangement), and to protect my son from her methods. Is there a way for observers to be a part of the solution rather than a helpless observer of what I would characterise as abuse? There appears to be no room for coexistence of diametrically opposed approaches to parenting (again the Western and Asian).

    1. Thank you, Jim! Fingerlakes are lovely. The snow is nice for maybe a few days. The constant lack of blazing sunshine for months on end was what “did me in”, I think.

      I’m glad that your son has you to provide a “balancing” force in what he is receiving from your ex. I don’t think you can soften her style, for the same reason why I don’t believe people can “change other people”. The most reliable approach you have is to work directly with your son and help him analyze the type of parenting he is receiving, and – very importantly – help him learn to dissociate his “self” from his “performance”.

      In other words, “when mom tells you that you’re worthless, she actually is saying that your performance should improve, not you are a worthless as a human being.”

      You may want to help him with the analytical process by encouraging him to have this silent dialog when he is receiving Tiger parenting messages.

      Mother: What’s wrong with you? Why are you so stupid? I’m ashamed of you, get out of my face, I can’t even stand to look at you!

      Son: {after analyzing as you’ve guided him privately} I’m sorry you are disappointed in my test score, mom. I will work on what I got wrong by spending an extra 15 minutes on each section.

      The key is to help your son learn to decipher the ACTUAL and ACTIONABLE message that HE HAS CONTROL OVER. He cannot control her parenting methods, or how she feels, or how she has been parented. He can only describe the situation (“… you are disappointed”), correctly attribute the feeling (“… in my TEST SCORE”), and propose a solution that he has control over (“… I will work on …. by…”).

      As your son becomes practiced in this method, he may even be able to have a harmonious relationship with his mother by removing his sense of self worth from her insults, but still recognizing her feelings as valid for her.

      1. You know what, Jane? I see the wisdom in your suggestion. I’ll take that tack with my boy. He’s such a great kid….

        As for Fingerlakes, one of my lawschoolmates (Syracuse) was from Seattle and complained that upstate NY was actually rainier than the Puget Sound area! He hated upstate. I can see how rusting, rather than tanning, can bother people.

  6. I was looking for the “LIKE” button on your comment about rusting and then I realized, “wait… I’m not on Facebook!”

    I lived on all the snow belts; Syracuse, Ithaca, Buffalo. So I was plenty rusty. There are definitely people who are sturdy evergreens. I’m more of a warm weather plant. Or a cactus.

    Keep me posted on what happens with your son and thanks for “bringing balance to the force” for your child.

  7. Ha! That’s funny about the LIKE button. I’ve yet to figure out what to do with the Facebook page my son set up for me. I spend so much time online in conjunction with teaching that I tend to minimize spending my “off-time” online (or more likely, I’ve just been to meek to take the plunge and figure it out once and for all).

    Cacti or succulents! Good call. I’ve seen a good number of cactus blooms, and they are incredibly seductive. Enticing and beautiful, full of life and color. Much to be said for warm weather plants.

    I talked to my step son this afternoon and will meet with him tomorrow evening. He’s eager to find new ways to cope. I look forward to sharing some ideas with him. Thanks for the guidance.

  8. Jane, thank you so much for this blog post! I am Indian-American and this completely resonated with me. The relentless pressure my parents put on me, and their continued disappointment with my career, lack of a husband and “rebellious attitude” cause them to constantly criticize me and try to make my decisions for me. It’s sad, because I went to Ivys for both my degrees and have a great job. Those things won’t make you happy in the end. And I have come to learn my parents will never be happy with whatever choices I make. While they say they behave this way because they want the best for me, their lack of support, love and kindness toward me has resulted in terrible self-esteem, major depression, attempted suicide as a teenager and unhealthy co-dependent relationships. It has taken me a decade in therapy to even begin to recover and to recognize their behavior as pyschological abuse.

    Thanks Jane!

  9. Hi J, I am sorry to hear that you have this experience. I’ve had Indian-born friends (not American but European) and they relay similar stories with their parents. I’m glad to know that you are taking action that can help you reclaim the kind of life and quality of life you want for yourself. What I’ve found helpful is to surround myself with people who appreciate me for my non-achievement oriented traits (people who like that I’m quirky, funny-weird, etc.); it was helpful for me to get a different perspective about my self and self worth outside of how I was conditioned to view myself.

  10. I am a American of European decent and have lived in a American Chinatown for over three years now. The behavior of Asians in general and Asian-Americans is very disturbing to me. The Chinese will hit their children in public. The Japanese will throw insults and look down upon everyone else. The Filipinos are universally known for committing welfare fraud. Point I’m making is none of this stuff leaves when these people emigrate and cross the border. To me it’s very upsetting because Western values and culture is not based on Asian morality and all of the outfall as seen by this article. Honesty although this may sound racist I wish they never came here at all.

    1. There are many Asian parents who do not treat their children like that, just as there are Caucasian parents who abuse their children. For example, the popular “tiger mom” book resonated with many children brought up in Jewish families and they are familiar with the whole guilt trip/emotional manipulation that their parents subject them to. I think it’s more a matter of the parents’ assuming that a rigid way of forcing compliance is the only way to gain compliance or excellence from their children, which I disagree with.

  11. I could not agree more with what you are saying. I think I’ve gotten used to this fact though and to a certain extent, I can rationalize with this. However, what I cannot accept above everything else my parents do is that when they come across something they cannot understand, the blame is always with me. They simply cannot accept the fact that they might be at fault or just plain wrong.

  12. KK — the only factor you can control is you, which means the key is for you to look at what you cannot accept and change this — versus trying to change others (which we all know, no matter who they are, people don’t change unless they want to change.)

    You are giving a lot of energy to their blaming game by resisting it. You are resisting it.

    You don’t need to agree with this — but you can accept the way this is.

    This is a very important distinction. It is similar to “forgive but not forget” — I am not saying “agree with their blaming game” — but I am saying “remove your resistance so they can’t dance with you on this blaming game.”

    You can tell them this: “You may be right about this being always my fault.”

    Do this in a neutral tone, don’t look angry. The key word in the statement is “may.” You are saying to them they have the right to feel the way they do. What you are not saying but is implicit in your neutral tone is that you aren’t going to let this hook you into an emotionally manipulative game anymore.

    My thoughts are with you!

  13. Hullo!
    I happened to have stumbled upon this article after storming off from my angry mum and googled “asian depressed kids”, trying to find somewhere i can vent to people with similiar problems. haha. Although i know i am not alone with this problem, after reading this article, i can definitely relate. This article sure gave me some hope. I have friends that also have this problem, i guess you can say, we stick out for each other.

    Another Tip: Music. Or Art.
    Draw/Paint or listen to your hearts conTent. It really helps. /experienced.

    Thankyou for writing this.
    -Karen, An Aussie Asian kid thats naturally dumb but fights for happiness.

  14. I’m not even 12 now, and my parents have been treating me like that starting from age SIX. They put pressure on me (so much that I get headaches almost every day, have a hard time sleeping, and forget things), discourage me (or just not encouraging me, as they haven’t for about 113 days), and so much that I’ve tried to commit suicide (3 times already, once with my parents knowing, here’s what they said: “We wouldn’t care about you anyway, we wouldn’t care if you killed yourself or not. You’re a worthless piece of”, and I took out all the swearing), I also hear voices now (rarely though), just hearing my name and having a sense of dread or a little whisper, it freaks me out so much. I’ve been searching online for about 30 min for someone to talk to. By the way, I have straight A’s, skip 2/3 grades in math, very good at piano (2nd in state wooooo), and other talents. My parents just say that I’m not good enough. The emotional abuse is so bad I have nightmares about having grey hair when I’m 20. I have ADHD and have developed (sort of) OCD. They also yell at me so much (like a dog with rabies) and say I’m a failure, I should treat them nicely, and that I should give them thanks for every piece of success I have. Please, can someone reply?

    1. Please call 18002738255. It is the national suicide prevention hotline and they have people to talk to 24 hours a day!

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