Covering mental health can be tricky for any journalist. Covering mental health within a community where stigma is attached to mental illness is an even greater challenge. Katherine Kam, a health and medicine reporter, cut through the stereotypes of Asian American teens dealing with depression in a three-part series for New America Media.
Kam noticed a spate of stories in local San Francisco Bay media about students of Asian descent committing suicide.
“That really peaked my interest,” she said. “Some of these students seemed to have everything to live for. They were doing well in school, they were attractive, but they were depressed and were taking their lives and I started really paying attention to it.”
Kam received a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship and spent a year investigating the issue as it impacted Asian American youth, including high school students, college students, college graduates and their parents.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Among Asian American high school students, 29 percent have reported feeling ‘sad or hopeless’ for at least two weeks in a row during the past year, enough to interfere with their daily lives.”
Additionally, the CDC found that 19 percent of Asian American students had seriously considered suicide in the past year, compared to 16 percent of all high school students.
To understand why, Kam started her researching by taking an Asian American psychology class at a local community college.
“In Asian American communities there is still so much stigma attached to any type of mental illness,” she said. “It’s still very shameful to discuss. I knew going in that it was going to be hard to find sources. I knew I couldn’t just call people up cold to talk about depression because this feeling was so intense.”
The taboo attached to depression is related to cultural expectations that have perpetuated the image of Asians as a “model minority” of high achievers. Alison Reiko Loader, author of cultural studies journal article called “We’re Asian, More Expected of Us'” writes, “the model minority stereotype is not as flattering as it may first appear. The expectation of overachievement diminishes individual accomplishment and diversity amongst people of Asian descent by making them all seem the same. By portraying Asians as successful, it also effectively silences them and conceals racism against them.”
A social worker in New York referred Kam to families struggling with mental health issues. Due to privacy concerns, only one parent agreed to speak with Kam. She featured Tracy, a mother from Hong Kong living in Flushing, NY, in the first piece in Kam’s series, “Cultural Stigma Hurts Asian American Teens with Depression.” She explores Tracy’s son’s depression. Like many other immigrants, Tracy sacrificed her stable life back home to move her family to America.
Jason played video games all night, had angry outbursts and skipped school. Like many other parents, she thought her son was just being “rebellious,” but it turned out he was severely depressed.
Teens like Jason, “often share common themes. Their mothers and fathers are coping with culture shock and financial stress. These parents often work long, exhausting hours at restaurants and factories, persevering to give their children an education and better prospects. But the grueling schedules often exact a cost,” writes Kam.
She found that many Asian American parents do not know the warning signs of depression because of cultural taboos against admitting a problem. Their children are under immense pressure to do well in school. They are expected to appreciate what they have here in America and all their parents do to provide for them.
Some parents who are made aware of the depression reject the diagnosis.
“They fear that any mental problems will reflect badly on their son or daughter, as well as tarnish their entire lineage,” Kam writes.
It turned out Jason was severely depressed and skipping school because his poor English embarrassed him, but he couldn’t admit it. Kam’s reporting of Tracy and Jason’s story made the issue relatable to anyone with children, or anyone who has ever experienced the stress and pressure of high school.
Kam thought carefully about which stories and information she included in her pieces to avoid sensationalizing the issue.
“Make no mistake,” she writes. “Most Asian American teens are emotionally healthy and thriving. But government statistics suggest that a substantial number struggle emotionally.”
New America Media is a national hub for ethnic media and coverage of ethnic and immigrant communities. Kam’s series was translated into Chinese and Korean and syndicated to Vietnamese, Filipino and Indian media outlets. She advises other journalists writing about immigration take translations into account to make sure the people they write about are able to read the stories about issues that affect them.
Since publication, community, church, and school groups have approached Kam about presenting her findings. She is pleased her work made an impact.
“I’m hoping the stories will shift their thinking,” she said, “Not so much that this is a bad kid who needs correction, but rather this is a kid who needs some help.”
She continued, “I wanted that element of hope. The whole purpose of this story is not only to shed light on this issue but that there is hope, and here is what you can do.”
Read the series: