Posted on December 29, 2020

The Mental Health Toll of Being a ‘Model Minority’ in 2020

Kimmy Yam, NBC News, December 23, 2020

In a year that saw the closing of businesses, skyrocketing unemployment and ongoing hate incidents concurrent with the public health crisis, the severity of Asian Americans’ struggles has been minimized at best or gone unnoticed at worst, experts say.

Many trace the invisibility of the community’s challenges, in part, to the mythical characterization of the racial group as compliant, successful and faring well — tropes that have long obscured the reality of their struggles.

Asian Americans are the racial group least likely to reach out for help. And that fact — coupled with an already existing belief that AAPIs don’t struggle — has only exacerbated pandemic-related problems for the community.

The group is roughly three times less likely than whites to seek mental health help. While Asian Americans report fewer mental health conditions than their white counterparts, they are more likely to consider and attempt suicide.

“Especially when you when you talk about the invisibility of some of their issues, in a sense, it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Richelle Concepcion, president of the Asian American Psychological Association, told NBC Asian America.


For many Asian Americans, asking for help, despite how difficult this year’s circumstances have been for them, can feel like a mentally insurmountable barrier due to the pressures and expectations that the model minority myth has set, D.J. Ida, executive director of nonprofit National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association, said.


The model minority myth has created external problems that have made assistance that much more difficult. Asian Americans need not look any further than the insufficient financial support they’ve received throughout the pandemic, amid their significant losses throughout the year, to see that, experts say.

For example, in New York City, Asian Americans had a jobless rate of 3.4 percent at the beginning of the pandemic in February. By May, the rate had surged to 25.6 percent, the largest surge among all major racial groups, a study released by nonprofit Asian American Federation revealed.

Yuh-Line Niou, a member of the New York Assembly whose district includes Chinatown, noted that before the pandemic, Asian Americans were already struggling, as the group had the highest poverty rate in the city compared to other groups. Roughly 1 in 4 seniors were living in the poverty. However, a 13-year analysis of the city’s government grants released in 2015 by the Asian American Federation showed that Asian American community organizations had only received just over 1 percent of total spending.

Since then, the ethnic enclave has torpedoed into financial struggle, with the community’s survival hanging in the balance, partly due to the racism that’s spread with the virus.

“Now during the pandemic, even while my Asian American colleagues and I have consistently brought up the need to help Asian American small businesses that were first hit economically — not by the virus itself, but by xenophobia and racism — we received no help and we saw the systemic racism that allowed for the continued oversight,” Niou said.

Joo Han, deputy director of the Asian American Federation, echoed Niou’s claims, saying her organization has witnessed many in the community resort to workforce development programs to seek employment, whether through additional training or connections to employers who can use their skills. But because there’s a high rate of limited English proficiency at 50 percent, these programs “don’t really exist to serve our community.”


Across the country in California, the state with the highest population of Asian Americans, 83 percent of the Asian American labor force with high school degrees or lower filed unemployment insurance claims, according to a UCLA study. But many did not receive the help they needed. Research also showed that Asian American businesses were hit earlier and experienced a deep decline in revenue, but they were less likely to get relief assistance.

“This then ripples down to the workers, who are displaced and jobless,” Paul Ong, a research professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, said. “Some did get unemployment insurance benefits, but too many did not.”

Ong said the model minority myth has “blinded too many public officials to how hard the pandemic has hurt Asian American workers and businesses,” making it so that relief efforts are not reaching these employees and firms.


Even in contexts where racism is more overt, the model minority myth plagues Asian Americans, as well. Reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate collected 2,583 reports of anti-Asian incidents over a period of roughly five months during the pandemic.


“Because of the lack of awareness of what the issues are, some think, ‘But what’s the problem? You guys are all just doing fine,’” Ida said. “So they don’t take it seriously, because they don’t understand that this model minority myth works against us.”


Concepcion said more focus should be placed on representation in mental health circles and creating Asian American-specific healing spaces where people can feel comfortable talking about their needs.

“It helps to see somebody who looks like them sharing some other stories that really resonate with them that are reflective of their experiences,” she said.

Ida echoed Concepcion’s thought, noting that because there’s so much emphasis on prioritizing the community in Asian cultures, there can be a lingering perception that self-care is selfish. And particularly during times of need, it’s crucial for people to disentangle that association.