National Alliance on Mental Illness
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June 19, 2005

NAMI Convention Highlights Asian American and Pacific Islander Communities

"In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, we must be the change we want to see in this world," declared Gayathri Ramprasad, a native of India who now serves as a NAMI Oregon leader.

Her road to recovery from depression began when as a young mother, she tried to kill herself by burying herself alive.  It required hospitalization—and breaking the silence within her high-achieving family about the mental illnesses that had affected many of its members over the years.

Stigma surrounds mental illness in all cultures, but is especially powerful among Asian American and Pacific Islander (AA/PI) communities, NAMI members learned at a seminar sponsored by the Multicultural Action Center on the opening day of NAMI’s annual convention—being held in Austin, Texas, June 19-21.  Reasons vary greatly, including religious beliefs that mental illness is “bad karma from a previous life” and cultural emphasis on "We" rather than "I" that devalues individual concerns.

Besides family and community structures, seminar panelists discussed the impact of adaptation, acculturation, and assimilation—as well as cultural stereotypes that cause many to overlook lower-income persons. Even so, there is relatively very little research on mental illnesses in AA/PI communities. What is generally known:

  • The word "depression" does not exist in certain Asian languages, such as Chinese. 
  • The overall prevalence of mental illness is similar to that of the Caucasian population.
  • AA/PIs have the lowest use of mental health services among all ethnic populations.
  • AA/PIs have higher levels of depressive symptoms than whites. South Asian refugees have the highest rate among Asian groups.
  • AA women ages 15-24 and elderly AA women have higher rates of suicide than their counterparts in other groups. 

Transformation of the mental health system must include cultural competency, both in breaking down stigma and educating providers who understand cultural subtleties and distinctions.

Click here to find resources for Asian Americans.

More coverage of the 2005 NAMI National Convention