Connecting Mental Health, Career Counseling and Culture for Asian Americans
By Elise Brown and Monica P. Band
More Asian American high school students report having suicidal thoughts and attempts than their same aged white peers (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015). In general, the understanding of the mental health needs and attitudes of Asian Americans towards mental illness is limited (Pew Research Center, 2017). However, we do know that Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services compared to other US populations and most young Asian Americans will go to close friends, family members, and religious community members for support (Pope, 1999). Although Asian clients underutilize formal mental health services, Pope (1999) identified career counseling as one type of counseling individuals from Asian backgrounds are most likely to seek. In fact, they may over use these services, as seeking career advice does not have the same stigma associated with seeking help for depression (Pope, 1999).
Occupational Values and Career Choices
Social identity, cultural identity, and diversity are major forces influencing the counseling profession today. Asian American cultural values may strongly impact their career choices (Pope, 1999). Leong and Gupta (2007) in their work regarding career development and vocational behaviors of Asian Americans emphasize the importance of career counselors and their awareness of the occupational values of this population. These values may strongly align with their cultural values and include “money, task satisfaction, prestige in career, and service dedication” (Leong & Gupta, 2007, p. 159). In recent years, the US Asian population has exceeded the US population in economic well-being. In 2015, the median annual income for households headed by Asian Americans was $73,060, compared with $53,600 among all US households (PRC, 2017). These statistics support the connection between their cultural and occupational values, however, there are large differences in economic status among Asian subgroups.
Furthermore, Asian Americans experience occupational segregation, and like other ethnic groups, they are overrepresented in some occupations while under-represented in others (PRC, 2017). As counselors, it’s important to be familiar with the framework of intersectionality as a powerful tool for making sense of how these interlocking systems of privilege and oppression are experienced by our clients. Another factor contributing to these career-related choices and aspirations among Asian American clients has to do with parental involvement (Leong & Gupta, 2007). In many cases, it may be beneficial and/or necessary to include the families in the career counseling process to help the client balance their own needs with their cultural and familial influences (Iwamoto & Liu, 2010). Considering other aspects of the clients’ multiple and intersecting identities from an Intersectional theoretical framework will potentially allow a more enriching discussion on the influences of career decision making for Asian American clients.
In recent decades, only a handful of studies have highlighted the career interest patterns among Asian Americans. Group career counseling is particularly appropriate for ‘group-oriented’ cultures for many reasons such as the importance placed on “collectivism, primacy of group survival over individual survival, interdependence, and connectedness” (Pope, 1999, p. 13). These are common themes that span across many Asian ethnic groups. However, it is important that counselors observe how closely a client identifies with these typical Asian cultural values and beliefs (Pope, 1999).
Yoo and Lee (2005) found that for Asian Americans with a strong ethnic identity, suppressive coping strategies are often used to avoid interpersonal conflict. For example, what may appear to an Asian American client as coping with emotional issues, may actually be avoidance, repression, or denial of these issues from a counselor’s perspective. Through suppressive coping, an Asian American client may not actually experience catharsis or a relief in distressing symptoms; rather they do not address these issues by believing that not discussing them will be the solution. This impacts the low rates of Asian Americans seeking help through formal counseling services. The use of these suppressive coping strategies can put them at higher risk for depression. Wei, Heppner, Ku, and Liao (2010) examined the effect on the utilization of certain coping strategies and whether they strengthened or weakened the association between racial discrimination stress and depressive symptoms. In doing so, they identified and contrasted the coping strategies of individualistic cultures with collectivistic cultures. Those who strongly identify with collectivistic cultures typically cope with their stress in one or more of these five ways: “(a) acceptance, reframing, and striving, (b) family support, (c) avoidance and detachment, (d) religion/spirituality, and (e) private emotional outlets” (Wei, M., Heppner, P. P., Ku, T., Liao, K., Y., 2010, p. 139), thus highlighting the importance of being sensitive to culturally congruent coping.
Seeking Understanding of the Stereotype
Counselors working with this population must be conscious of the “model minority stereotype.” Asian Americans have been known as the model minority group, meaning that they experience greater success than other racial minority groups, which is presumed to be associated with a strong work ethic, perseverance, and drive to succeed (Yoo, Burrola, and Steger, 2010). A 2010 study led by Yoo, Burrola, and Steger investigated the internalization of this stereotype among Asian American college students. Their findings suggest that internalizing one’s race and stereotype in such a way can contribute to “stereotypic-consistent” behaviors, functioning as a self-fulfilling prophecy even if their own personal beliefs don’t align (Yoo, Burrola, and Steger, 2010). The process of internalized stereotypes or internalized racism are subcategories of a larger process of internalized oppression. Using a social justice lens, these internalized processes happen when a member of a marginalized group affirms negative stereotypes placed on them by the majority culture that is systemically oppressive. This process may cause great internal distress as well as result in conflict within their cultural groups they identify.
The literature highlights the dangers and psychological impact of this ”overly positive caricature.” The model minority stereotype and portrayal of success and high aspirations can lead to other false beliefs about their ability to overcome hardships. Subsequently, Asian American college students may feel like they can psychologically cope better than they realistically can and may avoid seeking help when necessary. In addition, Asian American college students are usually not considered to be exposed to criticism and discrimination as compared to other racial minority groups (Yoo, Burrola, and Steger, 2010). With these factors in mind, in an effort to seek understanding of a client, a career counselor may ask:
“What does it mean to be Asian and attending college/working in America?”
“What does it mean to be Asian American?”
“What are some positive or negative messages you receive about your racial group?”
“Which of these messages do you think are true to you?”
Holistic Client View
These process questions, as well as the consideration of collective coping, may help inform a career counselor to conceptualize client supports and view their client in a more holistic manner. These questions may also provide validation to the client and model a safe space to discuss the complexities of culture and context in which the client operates.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2015). Leading causes of death (LCOD) by age group, Asian or Pacific Islander females- United States, 2015. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/women/lcod/2015/asian-pacific/
Iwamoto, D. K., & Liu, W. M. (2010). The impact of racial identity, ethnic identity, Asian values and race-related stress on Asian Americans and Asian international college students’ psychological well-being. Journal of counseling psychology, 57(1), 79. doi:10.1037/a0017393
Leong, F. T. L., & Gupta, A. (2007). Career development and vocational behaviors of Asian Americans. In F. T. L. Leong, I. G. Arpana, A. Ebreo, L. Hsin Yang, L. M. Kinoshita, & M. Fu (Eds.), Handbook of Asian American psychology (2nd ed., pp. 159-178). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Pew Research Center (2017, Sept 8). Key facts about Asian Americans, a diverse and growing population. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/08/key-facts-about-asian-americans/
Pope, M. (1999). Application of group career counseling techniques in Asian cultures. Journal of multicultural counseling and development, 27(1), 13-18.
United States Census Bureau. (2014). Quick facts. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST120215/00
Wei, M., Heppner, P. P., Ku, T., Liao, K., Y. (2010). Racial Discrimination Stress, Coping, and Depressive Symptoms Among Asian Americans: A Moderation Analysis. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 1(2), 136-150.
Yoo, H. C., Burrola, K. S., & Steger, M. F., (2010). A preliminary report on a new measure: Internalization of the Model Minority Myth Measure (IM-4) and its psychological correlates among Asian American college students. Journal of counseling psychology 57(1), 114-127.
Yoo, H. C., & Lee, R. M. (2005). Ethnic identity and approach-type coping as moderators of the racial discrimination/well-being relation in Asian Americans. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52, 497–506.
Elise Brown, B.A., Clinical Mental Health Counseling Graduate Student is an aspiring counselor in her final semester at Marymount University where she is completing her Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She is currently gaining experience as a graduate counseling intern at Sunstone Counseling in McLean, VA working with children, adolescents, and young adults. She can be reached at email@example.com
Monica P. Band, Ed.D., CRC, NCC; Assistant Professor at Marymount University’s Counseling Department teaches Career Counseling to masters-level Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Dr. Band received doctorate in Counselor Education and her master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counseling. She has a background in vocational rehabilitation counseling. She researches and specializes in providing culturally competent counseling services to Asian American clients as well as addressing cultural issues related to career development. Currently, Dr. Band provides individual, career, and couples counseling under clinical supervision in a private practice setting in Northern Virginia.