Suicidal thoughts among Asian American women

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A study of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in the Asian American community reveals that U.S.-born women of Asian descent have alarmingly high rates of suicidal ideation—thoughts of suicide—compared with the general U.S. population. Nationally, an average of 13.5% of people will contemplate suicide in their lifetime, among Asian American women born in the U.S., that figure is nearly 16%. What’s more, suicide attempts are also higher among Asian American women born in the U.S., at more than 6%, compared with a national average of 4.6%.

There has long been anecdotal evidence for an increased risk of suicide among Asian American women, including the horrifying tale of Elizabeth Shin, the MIT student who brought her own life to a brutal end in 2000. Yet, due to the proportionately small numbers of Asian Americans in national studies, statistics have often underrepresented this danger, according to Aileen Alfonso Duldulao, a doctoral candidate in social work at the University of Washington and the lead author of the study. “Often times the sample sizes of different minorities—including Asian Americans—is so small that it’s hard to make generalizations from that sample,” she says.

To fill in the gap, Duldulao and her colleagues used data taken from the National Latino and Asian American Study, which examines the mental health characteristics of some 2,000 men and women ages 18 and older from these ethnic groups. In their study, published in the journal Archives of Suicide Research they then broke down the data into very specific categories, taking into account socioeconomic factors, education, marital status and place of birth. They found that Asian American women who were born in the U.S. were at higher risk for both suicidal thoughts and actual attempted suicide than those who were born elsewhere. The finding is consistent with earlier studies that show better health outcomes for new immigrants compared with people of Latino or Asian heritage born in the U.S. It’s something researchers refer to as the “healthy immigrant” phenomenon, Duldulao says. “It’s an epidemiological paradox,” she adds, pointing out that new immigrants are often financially less well off than the generations that follow, and lower socioeconomic status is generally associated with worse health outcomes, not better. “The belief is that it’s the recent immigrants who are definitely at risk,” Duldulao says, and as a result, “unfortunately, we often overlook the second generation.”

Possible explanations for why new immigrants might be more resilient than the subsequent generation are varied, Duldulao says, but contributing factors could include maintaining the comparatively healthier lifestyles of their native countries, or even a selection bias, in which people who are healthier to begin with choose to immigrate in higher numbers. Another contributing factor could simply be the emotional toll of feeling torn between two cultures, she says.

Whatever the driving forces behind this trend, however, Duldulao emphasizes that it is important to recognize it as a dangerous reality. Too often Asian Americans are considered a “model minority” whose visible successes in society negate the possibility that they might battle mental health or emotional problems, she adds. That perception only serves to perpetuate the problem by deterring people in need from seeking help. “The community needs to start talking about this more,” Duldulao says.