Study raises alarm over mental health of Asian immigrant youth
A new study identified social isolation, academic pressure, poor communication with parents and lack of coping skills as key challenges faced by this vulnerable group.
NICHOLAS KEUNG / TORONTO STAR Order this photo
Ayato Inamori, 20, who came to Canada from Taiwan two years ago, says he always wears his mask when he goes out, even in school, to keep himself from having to interact with other people. A new mental health study found that almost 20 per cent of Asian youth felt they’re be better off dead, and others said they contemplated suicide.
Ayato Inamori immigrated to Toronto from Taiwan with his parents, two years ago in the dead of winter, and was placed at an alternative high school in the middle of the school year.
With little English, the then-18-year-old started in the English as a Second Language class. Over the next two years, he took math, guitar, music and gym to fill his schedule — and made only two friends, both Mandarin-speaking students from Mainland China.
“It’s not easy to make friends. I was in classes with others younger than me. My English is still a barrier and it’s difficult for me to understand my Canadian classmates,” said Inamori, now 20, who is hoping to graduate from high school this summer.
“I feel kind of lost. I don’t want to hang out with anyone. I just avoid people. And I’d thought about committing suicide at one point.”
According to a recent report by Toronto’s Hong Fook Mental Health Association, 19 per cent of Asian youth surveyed — the majority of them first-generation immigrants — said they felt at times over the past year they’d be better off dead, while 12 per cent said they had seriously considered suicide.
The nine-month study identified social exclusion, poor communication with parents, lack of coping skills and stress from pursuing academic excellence as mental health challenges faced by this vulnerable group.
“The ESL youths surveyed spoke at length about the social isolation they experienced as a result of language and cultural barriers. They were unable to make friends or have any meaningful relationships,” said the report’s lead author Helen Poon, Hong Fook’s holistic health manager.
“They had little communication with their parents. There’s no outlet for them to share their experience. When they had problems, they didn’t talk about them. It just sets them up for failure.”
The study surveyed 163 Asian youth aged 16 and 24 in Greater Toronto and conducted nine focus groups involving 92 young people from the Chinese, South Asian, Cambodian, Korean, Filipino and Vietnamese communities.
Inamori said his mother, a medical doctor, and father, a manager at an electronics manufacturing company, both struggled after coming to Canada. The former now works as a personal support worker at a long-term care facility while the latter has a labour job in a factory.
“They are both very busy with work and they have no idea how to talk to me. It’s not useful to talk to them,” he said.
Holly Zhao, 18, moved to Toronto from China with her divorced mother and older brother in 2010. However, her mother had to return to China for her job at a Chinese hydro company and left her in the care of an acquaintance.
“I did not have a single friend for two years. In China, we had all our classes with the same classmates every year. Here, you are with different people in every class. You don’t get to know them,” she said. “I was in ESL for three years. None of them could speak Mandarin.”
Although her mother has finally permanently settled in Canada, Zhao said there’s little communication between them because she is not a friend but an “authoritative” figure.
Like Inamori, Zhao said she, too, spends a lot of time of computer gaming and reading Chinese novels downloaded on her smart phone, as a way to cope with loneliness.
“My brother was brought up by my parents. I was brought up by my grandparents. We don’t really talk. And I just keep everything to myself,” said Zhao, who is finishing Grade 12 this summer but won’t be going to college right away because she only has Grade 10 English.
Poon said participating youth also found mainstream mental health information inaccessible due to language and cultural barriers. The study recommended more multilingual mental health information and culturally-sensitive counselling are needed for them and their families.
Other key findings
- Young people reported a “weak bond” with their parents, who place heavy emphasis on academic excellence.
- Mandarin-speaking participants noted their parents’ post-immigration stress being displaced on them. They talked about language barriers as a key contributing factor for their low self-esteem, anxiety and depression in and outside of school.
- Respondents spoke about keeping themselves isolated to “get over the issue” and said they wouldn’t share emotions with friends because it could “infect” the next person.
- Some relied on binge eating, crying alone, long hours of gaming and shopping as ways of coping with stress.