Why Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Don’t Go to Therapy

While approximately one in five Americans experiences mental health concerns each year, significant disparities exist in the rates that each demographic seeks professional help. For some people, the idea of seeking mental health treatment may feel intimidating, but for others, speaking openly about mental health issues is considered taboo.

Within the Asian-American community, Asians are three times less likely than white people to seek professional help for mental health issues. Further, a 2019 study conducted in the U.S. found that:

  • 44% of Asian Americans indicated that they experienced psychological distress compared to 18% of the general population
  • 88% of Asian Americans who have a serious mental illness had not been treated by a mental health professional compared to 40% of non-Hispanic whites

In addition to systematic barriers to accessing mental healthcare, the AAPI community faces stigma and a lack of culturally competent, holistic health services. Over the past year, racial biases stemming from the coronavirus pandemic and violence against the AAPI community have only contributed to psychological distress among AAPIs.

Here are a few reasons why Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders don’t seek mental health treatment—and how younger generations are overcoming stigma and seeking professional help.

asian americans and therapy

Limited Access to Culturally Competent Mental Healthcare

In Asian countries, psychotherapy is rare. Because the Korean National Health Insurance doesn’t cover talk therapy, access to mental health services in South Korea is limited. Meanwhile, in Japan, hospitals privately set talk therapy prices at about $100 per session. And India’s first-come, first-serve approach to mental health treatment leaves people waiting for hours in hopes of meeting with a clinician.

In the U.S., although many Asian therapists have joined the mental health field within the past year, finding a culturally competent therapist remains a challenge for many AAPIs. The lack of options in AAPI therapists and vast diversity within the AAPI community make it exponentially more difficult for AAPIs to find the specialized mental health treatment they need to tackle their family, personal, and relationship issues.

Especially if you’re facing concerns commonly encountered by your ethnicity or culture, working with a therapist who has experienced similar circumstances and understands your culture allows you to access treatment tailored to your specific needs.

Internalized Stigma About Mental Health Conditions

In the U.S., talking openly about mental health issues is often considered taboo among the AAPI community, discouraging many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from seeking professional help. Instead, AAPIs are urged by family and cultural norms to overcome emotional concerns in isolation.

Even when services are available, AAPIs tend not to seek professional help. In many Asian American families, there’s a tendency to refuse to acknowledge mental health issues, especially among elders who hold a more traditional view of Asian values. Many Asian cultural values do not promote an open discussion of mental health issues or encourage Asians to seek modern psychotherapy services, which is considered a Western practice.

“Talking openly about emotional problems is still taboo,” Dr. Kim Hyong-soo, a psychologist and professor at Chosun University in Kwangju, said in an interview with New York Times. “If someone goes to a psychoanalyst, they know they’ll be stigmatized for the rest of their life. So they don’t go.”

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The “Model Minority” Myth Hurts Asian Americans

In the U.S., AAPI communities struggle to balance their identities and challenges with the “model minority” myth. The myth, which is a micro-aggression that assumes all Asian Americans can succeed, is impossible for anyone to live up to. By seeking professional help, AAPIs are admitting weakness—and, consequently, falling short of the model minority.

Unfortunately, this assumption also comes with overwhelming pressure—from family members, teachers, and even one’s self—to succeed at all times. Over time, these high expectations can further contribute to the need for professional help.

Micro-aggressions, including those that perpetuate the model minority myth, can lead to trauma and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, because these micro-aggressions are typically less violent than more overt forms of discrimination, their mental health effects are often ignored.

How Asian Americans Are Overcoming Stigma and Seeking Professional Help

The lack of understanding, availability, and usage of therapy services in the Asian American community is a real problem. Fortunately, despite the stigma, AAPIs are taking steps to break barriers, raise awareness, and talk openly about mental health.

Whether you’re interested in seeking professional help for a mental health condition or forming connections with the AAPI community, some helpful resources include:

  • The Asian Mental Health Collective provides access to mental healthcare for Asian Americans and Asian Pacific Islander South Asian Americans and strives to build a community to combat stigma globally.
  • The Asian American Psychological Association advances the mental well-being of Asian American communities through research, education, professional practice, and policy.
  • The National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association provides helpful resources for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, including COVID-19 resources.
  • The National Asian Women’s Health Organization offers valuable tips to promote well-being among Asian women.
  • Joining a support group is one of the most effective ways to address stigma in the AAPI community by discussing mental health conditions more openly among family members, friends, and peers. Support groups are available throughout the U.S., from New York City to Los Angeles.
  • Online therapy platforms like the Therapy Group of NYC provide data-driven, personalized treatment to help connect clients with culturally competent mental health professionals they feel comfortable with. Many online platforms provide access to licensed mental health counselors (LMHC), licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), associate professional clinical counselors (APCC), licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT), and other types of mental health professionals.

Finding a Culturally Competent Therapist

According to the American Psychological Association, working with a therapist who shares your identity can help combat stigma and promote better psychological outcomes by deepening the therapeutic relationship. While it can be challenging to find AAPI therapists in many areas of the U.S., many Asian therapists are entering the mental health field, creating more opportunities for the Asian community to find a culturally competent therapist.

Culturally competent mental health professionals understand your values, experiences, and personal beliefs and strive to provide personalized treatment aligned with your goals and values. If you’re struggling with your mental well-being, finding a culturally competent therapist is key—and you should always leave your therapy session feeling respected and heard.

When meeting with a therapist for the first time, it can be helpful to ask the following questions:

  • Do you have experience working with other AAPI clients?
  • Have you received cultural competency training or training in Asian therapy?
  • How do you see our cultural backgrounds affecting my mental health treatment?

When you’re ready to take the first step, we’re here to help. At the Therapy Group of NYC, we provide confidential, personalized access to our caring expert therapists in New York City so you can enjoy data-driven treatments tailored to your specific needs. Whether you’re experiencing depression or struggling to cope with stress, one of our compassionate, culturally competent mental health professionals will help you jumpstart your mental health journey.

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