Push to achieve tied to suicide in
by Elizabeth Cohen, CNN
Photo: Moved by a personal tragedy,
college professor Eliza Noh is looking for the reasons behind suicide
and depression in Asian-American women.
Suicide second-leading cause of death for Asian-American women 15-24
Highest suicide rate among women of any race, ethnicity for that age
Experts cite "model minority" expectations, family pressures as
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- One evening in 1990, Eliza Noh hung up the
phone with her sister. Disturbed about the conversation, Noh
immediately started writing a letter to her sister, a college student
who was often depressed. "I told her I supported her, and I encouraged
her," Noh says.
But her sister never read the letter. By the time it arrived, she'd
Moved by that tragedy, Noh has spent much of her professional life
studying depression and suicide among Asian-American women.
assistant professor of Asian-American studies at California State
University at Fullerton, Noh has read the sobering statistics from the
Department of Health and Human Services:
15-24 have the highest suicide rate of women in any race or ethnic
group in that age group. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death
for Asian-American women in that age range.
(CNN Video about
Asian-Americans' feelings of pressure to hide depression)
Depression starts even younger than age 15. Noh says one study has
shown that as young as the fifth grade, Asian-American girls have the
highest rate of depression so severe they've contemplated suicide.
As Noh and others have searched for the reasons, a complex answer has
First and foremost, they say "model minority" pressure -- the pressure
some Asian-American families put on children to be high achievers at
school and professionally -- helps explain the problem.
"In my study, the model minority pressure is a huge factor," says Noh,
who studied 41 Asian-American women who'd attempted or contemplated
it's very overt -- parents say, 'You must choose
this major or this type of job' or 'You should not bring home As and
Bs, only As," she says. "And girls have to be the perfect mother and
daughter and wife as well."
Family pressure often affects girls more than boys, according to Dr.
Dung Ngo, a psychologist at Baylor University in Texas.
I go talk
to high school students and ask them if they experience pressure, the
majority who raised their hands were the girls," he said.
Asian-American parents, he says, are stricter with girls than with
boys. "The cultural expectations are that Asian women don't have that
kind of freedom to hang out, to go out with friends, to do the kinds of
things most teenagers growing up want to do."
And in Asian cultures, he added, you don't question parents. "The line
of communication in Asian culture one way. It's communicated from the
parents downward," he says.
you can't express your anger, it turns
to helplessness. It turns inward into depression for girls. For boys
it's more likely to turn outwards into rebellious behavior and
behavioral problems like drinking and fighting."
But Noh says pressure from within the family doesn't completely explain
the shocking suicide statistics for young women like her sister.
She says American culture has adopted the myth that Asians are smarter
and harder-working than other minorities.
"It's become a U.S.-based ideology, popular from the 1960s onward, that
Asian-Americans are smarter, and should be doing well whether at school
Noh added that simply being a minority can also lead to depression.
"My sister had a really low self-image. She thought of herself as
ugly," she says. "We grew up in Houston in the '70s and '80s, and at
that time in school there were very few Asian faces. The standard of
beauty she wanted to emulate was white women."
college, Noh's sister
had plastic surgery to make her eyes and nose appear more
Heredity, Noh says, also plays a role. She says in her study, many of
the suicidal women had mothers who were also suicidal. She says perhaps
it's genetic -- some biochemical marker handed down from mother to
daughter -- or perhaps it's the daughter observing the mother's
makes sense. You model yourself after the parent of the
As varied as the causes of depression, Noh says she saw just as many
approaches to overcoming it.
While some women in her study did seek help through counseling and
prescription drugs, most of her subjects were ambivalent or even
negative about counseling.
felt the counselor couldn't understand
their situation. They said it would have helped if the counselor were
another Asian-American woman."
These women found help through their religious faith, herbs,
acupuncture, or becoming involved in groups that help other Asian women.
"It shows the resourcefulness of these women," she says. "They had
really diverse healing strategies."
Cohen is a CNN Medical News correspondent. Senior producer
Jennifer Pifer and associate producer Sabriya Rice contributed to this
May 16, 2007
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