How does the model minority myth impact mental health?

The model minority myth was created as a racist and anti-Black response to the Civil Rights Movement. Asian Americans were exemplified as hardworking and resilient minorities who were able to successfully assimilate into whiteness in contrast to Black and brown people. They were upheld as the shining example that racism does not exist and used as evidence that Black and brown people were creating problems for themselves because they are inherently deficient. This racist trope continues today. Many Asian Americans buy into the model minority myth by distancing themselves from Black and brown communities and believing that they are closer to whiteness compared to other racial groups.

The tactic of pitting one racial minority group against another is called racial triangulation. Racial triangulation was coined by Dr. Claire Jean Kim, a professor of political science and Asian American studies at UC Irvine. This tactic is used by those in power to pit marginalized groups against each other to fight for scarce resources. This creates a false hierarchy within marginalized groups where each group fights against others to not be at the bottom.

How the model minority myth impacts mental health is similar to how racism impacts mental health. Research has shown that racism has significant and detrimental effects on the mental health of individuals, communities, and society. This can show up as symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, suicidal ideation, relationship concerns, loneliness, interpersonal violence, eating disorders, OCD, and more. 

With the model minority myth firmly in place in our society, Asian Americans continue to be lumped together into stereotypes that do not encompass the fullness and richness of our diverse lived experiences. When we disaggregate the data on Asians and Asian Americans, we see a much different story than what the model minority myth tells. Many Asians and Asian Americans are struggling with poverty, health disparity, mental health issues, access to education, the threat of deportation, etc. Without awareness and advocacy in the larger society, individuals and policymakers assume that all Asians and Asian Americans are doing well. In reality, many of our needs are invisibilized and go unmet. Invisibility contributes to a sense of isolation, disconnection, insecurity, and loneliness.

Another way that the model minority myth impacts Asian Americans' mental health is that it continues to create and reinforce competition and scarcity mindset with other racial groups and among Asian Americans. When you believe there is not enough wealth, status, power, or privilege to go around, you will continue to try to compete for those things at all costs with others. Asian Americans who buy into the model minority myth will seek approval and validation from whiteness in a never-ending toxic cycle. You can never be rich, beautiful, successful, or white enough.

In addition, Asian Americans feel resentment and even hate from other people of color for their elevated status as model minorities. In turn, Asian Americans might hate other people of color as a result of the myth. This is one of the contributing factors to anti-Blackness in the Asian American community. It is like the role of the golden child in a dysfunctional family. It might feel good and righteous for a while to be favored, but it comes at the cost of perfectionism, exhaustion, and disconnection from everyone in the family.

The model minority myth harms other people of color by discounting their experiences of oppression, creating resentment and hate toward Asian Americans. The myth also harms white people by perpetuating racism and protecting a system that continues to hurt us all. The myth temporarily alleviates the guilt and shame that white people feel about their privileges and roles in oppression. However, this kind of denial and cognitive dissonance ultimately creates rigidity, fear, defensiveness, anger, and violence. 

How can we unlearn the model minority myth?

We can unlearn the model minority myth by learning about its history and tracing that history to its present-day manifestations and consequences. We can learn how the myth shows up in our own biases, perceptions, and behaviors. We can learn to identify divisive strategies to pit marginalized people against each other. In the book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, Heath McGhee provides evidence of how divisive narratives and policies continue to hurt everyone, even those in power. She also gives examples of how solidarity between people working toward the same goal of liberation has been the most successful strategy against these divisions. We can unlearn the model minority myth as Asian Americans by stepping out of our comfort zones to create relationships and bonds with other marginalized groups and to find our common ground for advocacy and change. 

How is the Model Minority Myth Related to the Mental Health Stigma in Asian Americans?

Mental health stigma among Asian Americans is the product of culture, the model minority myth, the lack of representation of Asian American mental health professionals, and the lack of access to care, among other things.

In Asian American cultures, mental health struggles are still perceived as shameful, scary, a poor reflection on your family, and a sign of weakness. Myth, folklore, and religious beliefs in some Asian cultures have historically attributed mental health concerns as the result of bad karma, curse, or punishment from the gods. Trauma from wars, famine, and colonialism also contributed to stoicism and silence as coping strategies. Families may not have the tools to talk about mental health concerns, which then perpetuates the shame and stigma across generations.

In addition to educational and financial success, the model minority myth also assumes that Asian Americans are healthier as a population. Studies have shown that doctors are less likely to assess Asian Americans for health concerns that are standards of care, including mental health. If everyone around you assumes that you are healthier than the average person, you might come to believe that myth and ignore signs of concern. In addition, the myth makes it even more shameful to admit that you are struggling. 

The lack of representation of Asian American therapists creates a significant barrier to seeking help and contributes to mental health stigma in our communities. According to the American Psychological Association, in 2015, 86% of psychologists were white. Even though 5% of psychologists identify as Asian American which mirrors the 5.7% of Asian Americans in the population, it is still hard for an Asian American client to find an Asian American therapist in their neighborhood or to see an Asian American mental health expert presented in popular media.

Lastly, access to quality mental health care is a broader issue that also impacts Asian Americans. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration data in 2020, Asian Americans are the least likely to receive mental health care compared to other racial groups.

Begin Multicultural and Anti-Oppression Counseling in Seattle, WA

If you identify as Asian American and you are seeking mental health care in Seattle, WA, you may want to work with a therapist who identifies with your racial or ethnic identity or with a therapist who has strong training in multicultural counseling. Here at Thrive for the People, multicultural counseling is one of our specialties and social justice is one of our core values. We are dedicated to our continued growth in our understanding of oppression, bias, power, and privilege as well as how culturally specific factors impact our clients lived experiences. If you are searching for a multicultural therapist or an anti-oppression therapist, schedule a call with us to see if one of our therapists may be a good fit for you.