“People talk about physical fitness, but mental health is equally important. I see people suffering, and their families feel a sense of shame about it, which doesn't help. One needs support and understanding”
~ Deepika Padukone
This article is dedicated in light of Mental Awareness Month and to the many people affected by mental health illness.
The history of mental illness dates back to ancient civilizations such as the Greeks Egyptians and Persians. The Persians believed that mental illness was a result of being possessed by demons. The Egyptians believed that the mentally ill needed more recreational activities, and the Greeks, avoiding superstition, believed that imbalances of bodily and brain fluid were to blame. Those with mental illness had a social stigma attached to them. It was believed that the mentally ill had a hereditary problem and a disability that would injure the bloodline of a family’s honor. The Spartans of ancient Greece would kill any baby or boy that was physically or mentally weak to “get rid of a hereditary problem.” In cultures where family honor was a first priority, like ancient China, families would hide away their mentally ill relatives or abandon them to protect the family’s image so that communities and society wouldn’t think negatively of them. In ancient Japan, any family dishonor meant suicide or exile. These stigmas have been around for centuries and it is no wonder why people of all cultures still to this day refuse to seek help.
As Asians and Asian Americans we no doubt grow up with hard family values that have been refined throughout generations and generations. Asian Americans are actually least likely to seek out help than any other demographic. Why? Because often we are always to put the family’s honor and reputation ahead of our own problems. The term “save face” or variations of it have been taught to us as a younger generation one way or another. “Don’t make a fuss in the church or temple.” “Don’t act rude and wild outdoors.” “Don’t get bad grades in school.” “Don’t show signs of weakness.” “Why can’t you be number one?” “Why didn’t you get in the best college?” “Why don’t you have a scholarship like your brother?” “Man up.”
From personal experience, Asian parents tend to use and compare their children as a way to demonstrate “friendly” superiority amongst their own community. As children, it feels good when we can be bragged about, but damaging when we fail to meet the criteria. When we continuously and repeatedly fail to meet standards we are reprimanded verbally and at times, physically. As children, we know that to please our parents and keep a positive family image we have to meet the criteria expected of us. The perpetual cycle of pleasing and displeasing our parents can be damaging and lead to toxic relations. We learn that these problems are ours and ours alone. That is where we start to internalize these family problems because who do you talk to when your parents are disappointed in you? You can’t really tell anybody. As children we develop this habit of internalizing problems because “no one needs to know what's going on; it's our problem.” So when problems like bullying arise, we don’t say anything. “No one needs to know I’m being picked on” or “I can’t embarrass my family with school troubles”. We must always “Save face.”
These habits stick with us as we grow older. We internalize everything from a bad grade to something extreme like death. It takes a mental toll on us and it builds pressure. Extreme cases can lead to suicide and we suddenly become baffled at their actions. “Why did they commit suicide? They were such a great friend to everybody, always so caring and helpful.” Sooner or later we find out that so and so had too much stress or had a recent family death and it became their final straw.
It is important to know that there is no shame in confiding with someone, a friend, a sibling, a teacher, or a counselor. It is also important to also, as a friend, know the signs of someone struggling in life. A simple smile or pledge of support or accompaniment can change the course of things. If you know someone is in potential danger to themselves or others, there is professional help and different hotlines to call. It is time we show people that there is nothing wrong in seeking aid so we can unravel the stigmas of mental health and it's okay to always ask for help.
Linked below is a tragic story of mental health within the Asian American community and also revolves around the notion of “saving face.”