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Documentary works to destigmatize mental health in Asian-American community

UCLA students interned at the “Things I Never Said” project, which centers around opening a discussion about stigmas surrounding mental health in Asian-American communities. Director Wendy Wang said the need to create further education on this topic partially stems from the model minority myth. (Courtesy of Wendy Wang)

By Julie Lee

April 7, 2019 10:06 p.m.

The model minority mindset establishes a certain demographic as more successful than others, said Wendy Wang.

However, those labeled as such – like Asian-Americans – often find it difficult to discuss, she said.

Being Asian-American, she said her culture often puts pressure on younger generations to accomplish more. Students tend to overwork themselves to achieve their goals, but still don’t feel like it is enough, Wang said.

Trying to fulfill the expectations of those around her inspired Wang to direct the documentary “Things I Never Said,” which addresses the stigmas around mental health in Asian-American communities. Following the stories of five different individuals, the documentary will cover anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. The team is currently trying to promote their work through Instagram livestreams and YouTube videos, with UCLA students as interns marketing with the help of social media influencers. Wang said she aimed to find individuals with different experiences in order to resonate with a wide audience.

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“Mental health issues will occur in every culture, but because of the model minority myth, you don’t necessarily hear Asian-Americans expressing their struggles with mental health,” Wang said. “When you’re struggling, you might feel like you can’t seek help or be vocal about it because everyone else that looks like you seems fine.”

As the individuals discuss mental health, Wang said the film touches upon both representation and resources in the Asian-American community. In addition, she said such cultures often do not prioritize mental health awareness and resources for help.

Although it is important to highlight the similarities surrounding experiences with mental health across communities, she said it is especially important to shed light on the Asian-American experience specifically. The model minority myth labels this demographic as more successful in terms of education, income and low criminality, she said. With this stereotype, many Asian-Americans feel obligated to meet those expectations, and Wang said they are afraid to speak out against them.

Parents and individuals who have lived in older generations often don’t understand their children’s struggles and parents tend to blame themselves in the process, said Clara Chan, a third-year communication student and intern for the “Things I Never Said” project. Growing up in Singapore, Chan said she was constantly surrounded by the notion of perfection and high expectations for success. She said there was pressure to make sure you were on top of everything that was going on in your life: academics, business, social life and time with family.

“I was surrounded by people who automatically assumed that you were crazy or speaking for attention if you struggled with mental health,” Chan said. “This wasn’t just my immediate family, but also my close friends.”

Her work as an intern for the “Things I Never Said” project currently includes running social media campaigns. Due to her personal experiences, she became passionate about destigmatizing mental health in Asian-American communities.

“I didn’t want to disappoint my parents in anything I did,” Chan said. “Trying to destigmatize mental health in Asian-American communities comes from the pressure to honor your family’s name, and to make your parents proud.”

Third-year global studies student and project intern Lydia Joe said she sees culture differences between her immediate family and the families of her close non-Asian friends. For example, she saw a disconnect between her father and her grandmother, who did not have a steady relationship due to her grandmother not being able to understand what her father was going through mentally and emotionally.

“My father and my grandma don’t agree on a lot of levels,” Joe said. “My grandma does not understand the importance of personal space or mental health; she is always yelling and guilt-tripping my dad, definitely not allowing for constructive conversation.”

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Joe said the reason she became involved in the planning of the project’s upcoming events stemmed from her desire to bridge the gap between older, more traditional Asian generations and younger, more Americanized generations. The disconnect stems mainly from the collectivist mindset of East Asia versus the more individualistic mindset of the West.

“Immigrant parents really want their children to succeed because they’ve sacrificed so much to get their children to where they are now,” Joe said. “But the children have a hard time fitting in because they’re not quite American, and things are different culturally … but parents don’t understand.”

In order for the film to be educational, Wang said she will include mental health researchers, therapists and professors to explain the root of the stigma, as well as options for help that are available to those in need. For example, researchers will discuss why Asian-American culture is set up this way, and what has led to the placement of the stigma in the first place. Specifically, they will be explaining issues such as why Asian parents may pressure their kids to go into the medical field, Wang said.

Wang said that there is a certain power in sharing stories, and she hopes audience members can relate with the stories in the documentary. By including each individual’s support system, such as family, friends or spouses, the audience can also see how they can find help, she said. She also said the goal of this documentary is to showcase real experiences from others in order to normalize the conversation of mental health. Because people tend to look down on those who have mental illnesses, Chan said many people keep their stories to themselves.

“Ultimately, this documentary is an extra resource that allows people to realize that whatever they’re feeling is valid and that they’re not alone,” Chan said. “It’s OK to not be OK.”

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Julie Lee
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