Opinion: The silent suffering of Asian women

COVID-19 and hate attacks have taken a disproportionate toll on the mental health of Asian women in New York, and it may get worse.

Luna Liu

Luna Liu Luna Liu

May is a cheerful month for me because it is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. That means rich Asian cultural activities and cuisine tastings are happening around the city, promising a lot of fun and sweet experiences for any Asian family with a young child like mine. But this year, after reviewing the findings of a new survey conducted by MetroPlusHealth, my expectations have been tempered.

The survey highlights mental health among Asian women living in New York City, and its results have confirmed some of my concerns and daily stresses. Hate attacks have taken a disproportionate toll on Asian women during the pandemic. Combined with Asian women’s reluctance to seek help, it could soon develop into a crisis without timely intervention.

The survey interviewed 302 Asian women and an additional 505 New Yorkers of all backgrounds during April 2022. It found that Asian women were much more mentally vulnerable than New Yorkers in general during the pandemic and less likely to seek help.

For example, 64% of Asian women said the pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health, compared to just 48% of women in the city overall. Only 27% of Asian women strongly agreed that they feel supported by family and friends, compared to 35% of all women. Only 69% of Asian women know they can talk to their family doctor about their mental health, compared with 80% of all New Yorkers. 

For me, the disparity is upsetting but not surprising.

Years ago, I was a reporter for a Chinese-language newspaper here in the city. A young professional from a Hong Kong immigrant family told me her mother, a homemaker who seemed listless and absent-minded, had hanged herself when her daughter was in primary school. “I wish my father or I had known what depression was then and how to help her find treatment,” she told me with teary eyes, looking at a picture of her mother.

More than a decade later, it pains me that things do not seem to have improved. Some older friends recently told me that they are afraid to go out of their apartments due to the anti-Asian attacks, and the extended isolation makes them feel life is too torturous to continue. And, a younger friend has become anxious, overwhelmed by the news about the Ukraine war and the endless lockdowns in China, where her parents live. Before I urged them to, none of them had ever thought about seeking professional help. 

While culturally sensitive mental health services for Asian Americans are under-resourced, help is not absent. For example, NYC Health + Hospitals, the parent company of MetroPlusHealth, provides over 60% of all behavioral health services in New York. There is much work to do to help connect Asian women to the services they need. But what is more urgent now is to help them break their silence. 

As an Asian woman myself, I am fully aware that mental health is a taboo topic in traditional Asian culture. Instead, quiet endurance is considered a virtue for Asian women, who often play the role of the family caregiver and are not encouraged to heed their own needs. The “tiger mom” stereotype only perpetuates society’s expectation of strong Asian women and further discourages them from revealing mental vulnerabilities.

Last year, CBS anchor Cindy Hsu decided to talk publicly about her mental health issues. She told colleague Dana Tyler on-air about how she had suffered quietly and alone, only to be hospitalized after a suicide attempt, and why she chose to tell her story: “It opened a door that had been shut, right now, to so many people.” 

That open discussion needs to be continued and heightened in the Asian community, whether by survivors, family members, social workers, medical personnel, or celebrities. If we can do that, we can collectively topple the wall of stigma that has kept so many struggling Asian women from treatment for far too long.  

Luna Liu leads AAPI marketing for MetroPlusHealth.