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Project focuses on suicide risks for Asian Americans

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Aruna Jha
Aruna Jha: suicide rates for Asian Americans may be under-reported.

Photo: Kathryn Marchetti

The stigma of mental illness is causing an alarming number of suicides in the Asian American community, a university researcher says, but the problem is largely going unnoticed.

Asian Americans often don’t seek treatment for mental illness because of cultural ideals, said Aruna Jha, an assistant research professor in the College of Nursing.

“There’s an idea that it’s not OK to acknowledge mental illness because it

Jha hopes to break through the stigma with a coalition she founded at UIC — the Asian American Suicide Prevention Initiative.

The need for suicide prevention programs for Asian Americans is largely unknown, Jha said, and U.S. health statistics don’t show the risk they face.

In a racial breakdown, Asian Americans don’t have the highest suicide rate — in fact, the lowest reported suicide rate for men is among Asian and Pacific Islanders. The suicide rate for female Asian and Pacific Islanders ranks in the middle of all races, according to 2004 National Center for Health Statistics data.

But Jha said those suicide rates likely are under- reported because all Asian Americans are lumped into one category.

“If Asian Americans are disaggregated, the suicide rate is likely going to be higher because they would be calculated as smaller groups of people,” Jha said. “Now they’re all aggregated into one group.”

Still, U.S. health statistics show that Asian American women ages 15 to 24 have the highest suicide rate among all women in their age bracket. This, Jha said, is because of a culture of oppression.

“Asian American women in the U.S. report feeling a status difference while they were growing up — boys are more favored,” she said. “Culturally, suicide has been a socially condoned way to solve interpersonal conflicts.”

Feelings of oppression, among other factors, can prompt suicide, Jha said.

What causes suicidal thoughts is the same for all races: a sense of hopelessness, depression and a feeling that death is the only option, she said.

But some unique risk factors stand out for Asian Americans, especially youths, Jha said. Some feel alienated from their parents, who often hold onto cultural beliefs, she said.

“Youths feel like they’re being caught between two cultural poles,” Jha said. “They are coming from immigrant families and were raised by very protective parents.”

Some Asian American youths also feel alienated from their peers, Jha said. Strict upbringings limit their access to “taboo” topics, such as dating and alcohol, so they don’t know how to handle them once they’re away from their parents, Jha said.

Conflicts with dating partners or overindulgence in alcohol could lead to suicidal thoughts, she said.

“For Asian Americans, it is important to recognize cultural beliefs and behaviors that compromise effective coping and increase vulnerability to depression, interpersonal conflict and stress,” she said.

Asian American culture breeds a reluctance to address mental health issues such as suicidal ideation, Jha said. They don’t want to talk about their weakness or upset “model minority” perceptions, she explained.

“Asians are a people that are collectivistic — when one person shows vulnerability, they have the burden of letting down the whole group of people,” she said. “For young people, it’s the sense of letting down their families.”

But there are ways to overcome the stigma, Jha said. She and her organization, which formed in 2005, work to bring together Asian Americans and mental health providers.

“There’s a need for developing a cultural sensitivity and cultural competency in service providers, and to figure out a way to reach into the community,” she said. “The ultimate way to decrease suicide is to increase individual and interpersonal resilience.”

Usha Menon joined the group’s board of directors in December to educate others about the issue.

“I had no idea about how serious a problem this was in the community,” said Menon, an associate professor of nursing.

“I really don’t think there are a lot of people who know that this is a significant problem, but it isn’t hopeless — there are people you can talk to.”

The suicide prevention group has already organized forums, health fairs and workshops in the community, Menon said. They would also like to work with UIC departments to educate students, faculty and parents about the problem.

“It’s up to us as a community to see this is happening,” Menon said.

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