Experts are beginning to take greater notice of the impact of intense academic pressure and strict parenting on Asian youths, and they say these factors contribute to high rates of depression among young Asians. Chinese, Filipino and other Pacific Islander youths topped the charts of groups reporting symptoms of depression in a survey of middle school kids taken by the San Francisco Unified School District in 2001, in numbers disproportionate to their population.
In the worst cases, Asian youths see no way out. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people aged 15 to 24, but second among young Asian and Pacific Islanders (unintentional injuries rank first), according to the Centers for Disease Control in 2000. Asian American girls have the highest rates of depressive symptoms of all racial groups and the highest rate of suicide among all women age 15 to 24, according to an American Psychological Association study in 2003.
Coleman Wong says pressures facing Asian kids have changed little in the 30 years he has counseled students in San Francisco schools. “For the bulk of Asian parents it is all about succeeding, and there is no middle ground.”
Wong mentions two recent suicide attempts, one successful, by Chinese students in San Francisco as examples of how the enormous pressure to succeed may contribute to suicide. An American-born Chinese captain of Lowell High School’s football team, who maintained a high GPA in the district’s most competitive high school, killed himself in 2002. “A bad grade on a test or a fight with a girlfriend or boyfriend can be devastating to a kid if they don’t know how to reach out,” Wong says. In 2004, a student from Balboa High who ranked high in student government survived a suicide attempt.
Wong says often Asian immigrant parents don’t know how to give positive reinforcement or show their kids that it is OK to make mistakes. “In Chinese there is a word for making a mistake, ‘chuo,’ and a word for being bad, ‘huai.’ Parents confuse them both. It is a shame-based society. You do well for your family’s sake, not your own.”