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The Dartmouth
April 14, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Li Shen: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Mental health is not something to be ashamed of.

A few weeks into winter term, I called my parents crying for the first time in my life. They were noticeably confused — I don’t cry often, but when I do, I never go to them until my tears are gone. As it was, I could not fully explain why I was so upset. My dad, a psychiatrist, immediately asked me if I had been feeling “blue.” I responded that I had. I was tired, unenthusiastic and reluctant to spend time outside of my room. I had trouble getting out of bed, not because I did not want to leave the bliss of sleep but because I did not want to face the world. Everything felt “meh;” I could hardly remember the last time I had felt anything other than malaise. My dad told me to get more sleep, see my friends more and exercise regularly. If I was still feeling this way in a week, he suggested options such as therapy or medication. I called back a few days later, happy to report that I was feeling much better. He told me that I had probably been going through a slump brought on by the winter weather or homesickness; whatever it was, he was glad for me that it had passed. He ended the phone call with a reminder that I could always talk to him about my mental state, and that was that.

A friend of mine recently told me she was feeling suicidal. Three years ago, she had called 911 after almost committing suicide. Her parents pretended it had never happened. Like me, she comes from an Asian immigrant family, and when she told me her story, I was reminded that my relationship with my dad is deeply unique. Psychiatry is a severely stigmatized field in China, where my dad grew up, and the stigma surrounding mental health in Asian cultures is enormous. Mental illness can be seen as a sign of personal weakness or family shame and considered a taboo topic. The American Psychological Association reported that Asian-Americans have a 17.30 percent overall lifetime rate of any psychiatric disorder and a 9.19 percent 12-month rate. However, Asian-Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services than their white counterparts. This may be why, ever since I can remember, my dad has been fielding phone calls from Asian-American friends whose children were experiencing mental health issues. These phone calls were the closest to professional help these kids would get, since their parents would refuse to make an official appointment. My dad did the best he could to offer advice.

Recently, my friend tried to get her parents’ permission for antidepressants. They offered her an ultimatum: Get antidepressants and spend the summer at home or travel abroad like she had planned without antidepressants. This is a scenario that many Dartmouth students may find hard to believe, but it is one that I have seen far too many times. In my senior year of high school, an Asian-American girl committed suicide. Later that year, I had a brief bout of seasonal depression. Had I not grown up in an environment where I felt safe and comfortable talking about my mental health, I’m not sure what state I would be in today. Though the general stigma around mental health issues in America has decreased significantly over the past few decades, it hasn’t gotten much better for Asian-Americans.

So what can we do? As always, it starts with conversation. Taking conversation in a literal sense, the APA has found that most Asian-Americans face a significant language barrier when seeking treatment. As such, the APA calls for more bilingual services and “more collaboration between formal service systems and community resources.” As students on a college campus, talking about mental health publically and unashamedly is a definite step toward alleviating the cultural stigma around mental health issues. V-February at Dartmouth generates a significant conversation each year about gender-based violence and gender equity. Following that example, Dartmouth should organize more events to promote mental health awareness.

Mental health issues are more prevalent than ever on college campuses, but self-care is often the last thing students prioritize. The frenetic pace of schoolwork, socializing and extracurricular activities keep students in a constant whirlwind of action where they never pause to deal with the toll it takes. Now that I am living away from home, my dad’s habit of checking in with my mental health has carried over into my daily life. I ask myself the questions he used to ask me, taking the time to monitor my moods and behaviors for a better awareness of my mental state. My dad did not ask those questions because he felt I was at risk for depression — he asked them because they are questions people should ask every day. Regardless of what others may believe, people do a disservice to themselves when they neglect their mental health. Especially for the Asian-American community, it is important to remember that emotions are valid, and there is always strength in seeking help.