I am a Canadian-born Taiwanese-Chinese, and half-Japanese woman. I grew up ignorant of any difference that surrounded mental health and would rely on my grandmother’s reactions to shape my personal worldviews – that means I saw mental health the same as many Asians do, a weakness. Growing up in Canada, the media seldom portrayed non-White women, and when they did, it was through a stereotypic lens. I recall the Spice Girl Sporty Spice as my closest double because of her hair colour. Through the lens of my media sources, it looked like mental health was a taboo topic that rarely touched the Asian population. 

However, as I gained more experience as a Registered Clinical Counsellor by working with BIPOC clients and researched culture, identity and mental health in my graduate studies, I can assure that this is far from the truth. In fact, mental health just has a different meaning in Asian culture. Mental health in Asian culture is a mind-body connection that encompasses our entire health.

 

What Exactly is Mental Health?

Culturally, mental health looks extremely different. In the Western healthcare practices, mental health is categorized as malaise, distress, sadness, anxiety and the like. There’s a huge reliance on the DSM-5, a manual that categorizes and puts mental health into nice, organized boxes. The strong emphasis on mental health conditions has recently paved the way for less stigma, so more people feel comfort in speaking out about their conditions and diagnosis. 

In reality, traditional Eastern practices have always prioritized mental health, but it’s just categorized in a different way. Gurus, sages, elders and medicine healers look at wellness from a more holistic lens. For instance, when someone loses a lot of weight in a short time span, Asian mothers around the world become increasingly concerned, as they recognize it as a stress response. Or when a sore shoulder or stomach pains arise, healing practices include movement, nutrition, and sometimes singing and prayer. The physical pains and ailments of our body yell at us to listen to our mind and vice-versa. Thus, in Eastern practices, whole-body healing is the leading force to mental wellness. 

 

Why the divide? 

It’s been suggested that mental health, an individualistic concern, does not benefit the collectivist mind-set of many Asian cultures. Additionally, older generations see mental health as a weakness, rather than a health concern. Therefore, mental health can be taboo. 

Yet, many younger generations are more integrated in mixed cultural identities. The increase of social media, and virtually any other culture at our fingertips means that younger generations have more access to other perspectives. Therefore, there’s a cultural generational divide even within the Asian population. 

A way to combat the stigma is to incorporate culturally sensitive healers and use holistic approaches to healing. The use of elders, sages, and traditional medicines all hold healing powers. Moreover, the mind-body approach means that we look at mental health from a biopsychosocial-spiritual approach. Thankfully, Western medicine has recently started adapting to this approach.

Another approach is education. Knowledge is power and the more we learn about the mental health field, the more we recognize that everybody has emotions. Universally, we all feel sadness, anger, anxiety, and pain. If we can create a collective approach to emotions, the same way we think about physical pain, we can collectively heal our wounds. 

Yet, we must remember that culture is fluid. This means that culture is ever-changing and unique to time, space and meaning. Some of us may identify more with our chosen culture, rather than our inherited one. We may believe that one culture holds more social location than another, but let’s not forget that ultimately, multiculturalism is fluid. We must avoid dichotomies and instead recognize the evolving diaspora landscape, keeping intersectionality in mind. We must remember that collectively, we are a combination of races, genders and ethnicities that are influenced, and who influence each other. This intersectionality mindset puts us in the middle of both approaches so whatever views you have on healing, know that there’s a counsellor who will work with you and remain sensitive to your healing and wellness. 

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