For many people, mental health is a difficult subject to approach. The “Hear Me Out” seminar was held to dispel this stigma and provide a forum for open dialogue on intergenerational emotional wellness.
Written by Rachel Li, Claire Yu, Lucas Lin, and Grace Chen
For many people, mental health is a difficult subject to approach. The “Hear Me Out” seminar was held to dispel this stigma and provide a forum for open dialogue on intergenerational emotional wellness. The seminar took place on Saturday, September 30 at the Chinese Culture and Community Service Center (CCACC) and included the viewing of the movie “Looking for Luke”, a presentation on emotional wellness and intergenerational communication, and a question and answer session. It reached a wide audience, including families from all parts of Montgomery County, ranging from board county council members such as George Leventhal to regular families simply interested in the subject.
After hosting a similar seminar last year, Dr. Xiaoping Shao, a clinical psychiatrist and the coalition chair of Mental Health 360, brought psychiatrists Dr. Justin Chen and Dr. Juliana Chen back for a similar talk. Both Justin and Juliana are psychiatrists and psychiatric instructors at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Justin also serves as Associate Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry in Harvard Medical School, while Juliana specializes in adolescent psychiatry.
“I’ve encountered situations in Chinese-American families where some children are under a lot of stress and feel that parents don’t understand,” Dr. Shao said. “Parents get very angry that children don’t listen, so I think it’s really important to get both generations to understand each other.”
The seminar was organized by Isabella Yang, a junior at Winston Churchill High School. “[Mental health] is something that affected me, and affects a lot of my friends, and it’s something I see every day,” she explained. “People never talk about it! You need to start discussion.”
Justin and Juliana wanted to emphasize three key ideas in the seminar: emotional health, mental health, and, perhaps most strongly, communication. “I think part of what we see as therapists so often is that there’s so much love in these families but then it’s not communicated in the way that the other party can understand,” Justin said.
Juliana had a similar experience growing up: “I have two parents who love me very very much, but we never once talked about the things that worried me or that I was stressed about,” she said. “They made sure I went to school that I was eating well, that I got grades, but we didn’t have conversations about my feelings or my worries.”
Alongside Justin, Juliana, and Dr. Shao, Ms. Huixing “Kate” Lu was present at the seminar. Lu has been a licensed therapist for over 10 years, and is also the director of the Pan Asian Volunteer Clinic and the Project Manager of Mental Health 360°.
Juliana was one of the executive producers of the short film “Looking for Luke”, which she played for the audience during the seminar. Before beginning the movie, Juliana presented the audience with a few statistics: 1 in 5 people live with a mental health condition. 1 in 3 college students report that they feel so depressed they can’t function. Asians have higher rates of depression and suicidal thoughts, but are some of the least likely to seek treatment.
“Looking for Luke” is about a boy named Luke Tang who struggled with mental health and committed suicide during his sophomore year in college. His parents and friends were interviewed six months after his death, and were still much emotional. The film follows them as they uncover and try to understand Luke’s thoughts, revealing how so many Asian-American families are not aware of their child’s mental health.
Luke’s friends all thought he was a “perfect” kid and was going places. He was an accomplished violin player, had stellar grades and a curious nature, and attended Harvard. Yet, no one knew what was going on in his mind.
He had started questioning existence and the meaning of life since fourth or fifth grade. In his later years, Luke became a Christian and continued to question the meaning of life. A few months before he committed suicide, he asked his high school friend why she believed in God, and then told her that he had attempted to kill himself.
Luke was brought to the hospital for treatment, but he kept insisting that he was fine and somehow got out. People speculate that Luke might have lied just so he could leave. After Luke left the hospital, he went back to his regular life.
His sudden death in the fall of 2015 surprised many people, including his friends and family. He left three notes: one to his family, one to a high school friend, and one to a college friend. Luke’s father is trying to understand his son’s thoughts and why he would end his own life by reading his journals and notes, while his mother does not understand why anyone would kill themselves.
When Luke’s parents realized the problem about mental health, they wanted to help the Asian-American parents and children by making this movie. They knew that many Asian-American families were not connecting or communicating with each other, and that they themselves did not know about Luke’s mental illness until he ended his life.
“It should never end in suicide because that’s a tragedy and suicide is preventable,” Justin explained. “But ultimately I would love it if people didn’t even have to land in my office, that people would be aware of these issues earlier and deal with them earlier, including having better supports.”
Following “Looking for Luke,” Justin presented a slideshow about how American and Asian families view the concept of success, and how these differing ideologies can affect children’s mental health.
The presentation started off with a poll, in which parents and students alike answered questions about their perception of success and interaction between parents and children. The poll responses revealed that children think they talk to their parents less often than the parents do. Furthermore, parents were inclined to think of success as becoming a lawyer/doctor (or another well-paying career), getting good grades, and becoming affluent.
One of the poll questions, “Your child is switching from pre-med to an English major, what do you do?” resulted in a variety of amusing answers. One parent said “not paying tuition,” and another said “have fun on the streets.” Though possibly exaggerated, the sentiment is clear: disparagingly, most of the parents there disapproved of any career path that happened to not result in immediate wealth.
Justin aimed to destroy these misconceptions and facilitate positive intergenerational communication. He explained that Asian families and American families have contradicting stances on and definitions of the notion of success. Both types of families want the best for their children, but Asian families happen to display that care and affection in a much different way. “Our culture is goal-directed,” Dr. Shao said.
Asian parents care about stability, obedience, and saving face. American parents, on the other hand, focus more on following one’s dreams and independence. “Success” is not based much on how rich one is but rather on one’s influence in society and how well one is doing at their job.
Asian families also support perfectionism, the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection. However, perfectionism is detrimental to one’s mental health. “Sometimes, especially for immigrant communities, there’s so much pressure to just achieve academically or career-wise,” Justin said. “Certainly that’s important, but we also think that there are so many other things that go into leading a happy, successful life and a lot of that relates to emotional wellness.”
To close his presentation, Justin proposed some solutions to the overarching problem of his presentation and of the seminar as a whole: communication. With the already-present generation gap, the battle of two cultures is also there. “It’s even harder for some Asian-American families where you don’t speak the same language,” said Justin. “The importance of connection and communicating in both kids and parents and families, knowing the importance and being able to talk about things, whatever those things might be. So listening to each other, kids feeling that they are being heard out, and parents too.”
Together, the four panelists also answered the audience’s questions about both the film and the ramifications of mental health in general. To clear some misconceptions, Justin noted that mental illness can be both genetic as well as triggered by environmental stressors, comparing it to genetic likelihoods of lung cancer; there are those that are born with a higher risk, but smoking increases the risk as well.
Juliana emphasized that negative stress is one of the prime factors of suicidality. She speculated that the stress and pressures of immigration played a role in the abundance of mental illness in Asian American families. In terms of medicine, the panelists discussed that an individual should see a physician, even against their will, once they pose imminent danger to themselves.
Justin and Lu discussed the best solutions for mental illness prevention, which include sleep, a proper diet, and exercise, which reverses hippocampal degeneration in the brain and stimulates nerves. Psychiatrists at MGH are also conducting studies of how Omega-3 fatty acids, acupuncture, and yoga, can relieve mental illness.
Justin and Juliana also gave their personal experiences when they were in their high school and university years. “I have flashbacks from high school,” Juliana said after discussing her initial difficulties and struggles. Justin explained how he felt discouraged by his own stress. Both connected with the “furious swan” analogy, where they had to look and act calm and relaxed on the surface, but felt they were paddling desperately under the water.
In terms of the community of all who are affected by mental illness, Asian-American or not, the panelists gave their last few comments. “What I see is a lot of progress. I see hope,” Juliana said. “[Students] ask ‘how do I explain to [my parents] about mental health?’ And parents ask, ‘How do I connect with my child?’” All four expressed their happiness with the increased concern about and attention on mental illness in both public and private areas.
Through the efforts of Yang, Justin, Juliana, Lu, and Shao, the view of mental illness was changed in the eyes of many, parents and students alike. “I wanted people to get rid of their stigma,” Yang said. “I wanted people to become more open, to talk to their kids, for kids to talk to each other, and for parents to talk to each other.” Although it is too early to tell whether these goals will actually be accomplished, the seminar opened the door to discussion, and it seems that door will stay open.
This article was provided by Chinese American Parents Association Junior Reporter Club (CAPA JRC) with members who interviewed, audio recorded, wrote, translated, and video recorded. CAPA JRC has 19 Montgomery County middle to high school students. They have created a bilingual platform delivering news and serving the community. Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCA0gylW1ZCcgDvDiLAyObbA Instagram: @capa_jrc Blog: https://capajrc.org