April 19, 2006

Health expert explains Asian and Asian-American students' unique pressures to succeed

Though the Cornell student suicide rate mirrors the average on campuses nationwide, 13 of the 21 Cornell student suicide victims since 1996 have been Asian or Asian-American. The victim count is sobering considering that only 14 percent of the total Cornell student body are self-identified Asian-Americans. A total of 15 percent of all Cornell students are from overseas, but the number of Asians among them is not known.

Asian-American/Asian students, especially males, are under unique pressures to meet high expectations of parents by succeeding in such traditional predetermined careers as medicine and engineering, said Dr. Henry Chung '84, assistant vice president for student health at New York University (NYU) and executive director of the NYU Student Health Center, speaking to faculty and staff, and separately to students, on campus April 13. In addition, he noted, immigrant groups feel pressures due to sacrifices made by family members for their children's benefit. Females also face career pressures of Western society while having to maintain traditional female roles.

Cornell became so concerned about this problem that in November 2002 it formed a special mental health-oriented Asian and Asian American Campus Climate Task Force to address the causes behind the high number of suicides and to understand why these students report less satisfaction with their Cornell experience compared with other groups. In addition, in 2004 the Cornell University Council on Mental Health and Welfare was formed to bring broad-based and sustained attention to the mental health of the Cornell community.

"Our primary focus was to learn about the needs and interests and concerns of the Asian and Asian-American students at Cornell," said Susan Murphy, vice president for student and academic services, about the creation of the task force. "We wanted to understand why our students felt the way they did, if their experiences were similar to other schools, and what we might do to improve our programs and services to help improve their experiences."

The need for the Asian and Asian-American task force also stems from the fact that these students are among the least likely to seek out mental health help.

"The stigma among this group for seeing mental health professionals is extremely high," said Chung, who is also a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine and who has devoted his psychiatric career to Asian-American/Asian mental health issues.

Chung added that among Asians, quality of life is not considered as important as it is in American society. For Asians, suffering and working hard are accepted as part of life, a cultural paradigm, Chung said, that leads to fewer discussions of psychological values and more discussions about the body. In this way, psychological issues may manifest themselves physically in the form of headaches, stomachaches, fatigue and other disorders. Such cultural attitudes create fewer references for seeking out mental health professionals.

Also, Chung cited a study of high school students in Los Angeles that found Asian-American/Asian students were less comfortable than other students in expressing themselves emotionally and in openly questioning parental authority. Those who had more difficulty communicating with parents also had lower self-esteem.

"Communication and relationships with parents is something to always keep in mind with this group," said Chung.

Students at Cornell discussed many of these pressures during an open forum with Chung at Willard Straight Hall. Junior Allen Fung, a history and American studies major, talked about the derogatory comments he has received from other Asian students over his choice of major, which runs counter to more traditional hard science career choices typical of Asians. Fung added humorously how friends of his parents appeared confused and disappointed one moment when he mentioned his choice of major, uplifted the next moment when he told them he planned to parlay his history degree into a law career, only to find their spirits sink again when he mentioned a desire to enter civil rights law.

Chung mentioned a number of ways that universities such as Cornell are encouraging a "collaborative working through" process to Asian-American/Asian students that involves problem-solving as opposed to more psychologically oriented practices that might threaten an Asian's cultural orientation.

The Cornell task force, co-chaired by Tanni Hall, associate dean of students, and Wai-Kwong Wong, a counselor at Gannett Health Service's Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), has already submitted a report to Murphy that recommends strategies for reaching out to Asian-American/Asian students.

"There is no single solution to challenges faced by Asian and Asian-American students," said Timothy Marchell '82, director of mental health initiatives at Gannett. "The problems are complex, and they require a multi-faceted approach."

For starters, the university is conducting research on student mental health, including an analysis of Asian-American/Asian students' experiences. Data from the 2005 Enrolled Students Survey, taken by 4,790 Cornell undergraduates, revealed that Asian-American/Asian students seriously considered or attempted suicide at higher-than-average rates.

CAPS recently hired an Asian-American therapist who speaks Mandarin and is in the process of hiring another counselor with a similar background. "Having a diverse staff is how you engage people," said CAPS Director Greg Eells.

Because Asian-American/Asian students may find it difficult to seek out mental health help, CAPS counselors now offer walk-in hours in campus locations where many of these students work and study. These sites include the Office of International Students and Scholars, the College of Engineering, the Graduate School and the Computing and Communications Center building where there is an English language support office.

In addition, Dean of Students Kent Hubbell, Eells and Hall have been discussing student mental health at faculty department meetings so that faculty and staff can play a role in getting students help.

"The stereotype for Asian and Asian-American students is that they are academic machines," said Eells. "But in CAPS we see a lot of emotional pain here. We see the human side of that and those stereotypes keep people from seeking care."