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Asian-American Students and Depression

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TEAM Up asks journalists and entertainment writers for the inside scoop on their powerful and responsibly told stories of people dealing with mental health issues.

By Katherine Kam

SAN FRANCISCO—When I read about the suicides of three students of Asian descent at the California Institute of Technology in 2009, I was shocked by the loss of such gifted young men. But I also questioned the lack of in-depth stories about the problems of depression and suicide in Asian-American students. It’s not an easy topic to address, but it seemed timely. For several years, I had seen headlines about suicides of Asian-American students in other parts of the country, but after initial stories about the deaths, coverage would fall off. It was hard to find analysis of the mental health issues and the role that culture plays in Asian-Americans’ understanding of mental illness, including depression. As I would find out, culture influences people’s willingness to seek help when they’re struggling psychologically.

I received a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism for 2012–2013, a gift that allowed me to lead a large project on depression and suicide among Asian-American teens and college students. A longtime health reporter, I started by searching the academic literature, which was plentiful, but little had made it into the media. After gathering statistics and background information, I traveled to various parts of the country to interview mental health professionals, college students, parents of teens with depression and other sources. I discovered that many Asian-Americans don’t understand the symptoms of depression, or worry about losing face if they tell anyone about their problems. But I was extremely fortunate to find two mothers who talked movingly about their child’s depression or suicide. They were passionate about urging other Asian-American families to seek help because it might save a young person’s life.

I discovered that many Asian-Americans don’t understand the symptoms of depression, or worry about losing face if they tell anyone about their problems.

In September 2013, my three-part series was published in New America Media and multiple ethnic news outlets. The stories ran in English, but some of the pieces were also translated into Chinese and Korean. I’ve gotten positive emails from many Asian-Americans, who often told me that the stories felt genuine to them. Some Asian-American organizations and mental health advocacy groups have also featured the series on their websites. I’m grateful for the strong interest and have already begun pursuing several new stories on mental health among Asian-Americans.

Katherine Kam is an independent journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She specializes in reporting on health and medicine for national publications. In 2012, she received a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism to write about mental health in Asian-American students. Read her coverage:

Cultural Stigma Hurts Asian American Teens with Depression

A Psychological Lifeline for Asian American Teens

On Some College Campuses, a Focus on Asian American Mental Health