Nearly 45% of Asians are at risk of depression, according to a 2021 survey done by Asian Family Services, a mental health service for Asians in Aotearoa.

To understand the stigma around mental health in New Zealand’s Asian communities, Re: journalist Katalina Chung explores this issue. 

Last year, my mum’s friend died of suspected suicide. 

"At first the Korean church community was saying that she died from a heart attack, but that wasn’t the truth," my mum said.

Whispers about Lisa’s* suspected suicide spread quickly.

A few months before her death, another woman in the church community had also died of suspected suicide.

"[But] it was covered up because people in the community didn’t want the church to start having a bad reputation,” my mum said.

"People were saying, ‘if this can happen to devout Christians, maybe even God can’t fix depression’." 

My mum became close with Lisa over the three years she attended her English class. 

Lisa was “talkative, strong and bright”, my mum said. 

“She was a big presence in the community.”

But following her death, news also filtered through of Lisa’s financial crisis caused by Covid-19. 

“I heard later that her business failed because of Covid-19 and she was having serious financial problems." 

In July 2021, an estimated 1,052 people died of suicide in South Korea, according to data from Statista Korea. 

Statista, a German company that looks at market and consumer data, found mental illness, financial problems, family problems, and physical illness were the most common reasons for dying by suicide among South Koreans in 2019. 

Asian Family Services (AFS) conducted a survey in 2021 that showed 44.4% of Asians and 64.1% of Koreans in New Zealand are at risk of depression.

In 2018, Aotearoa Youth Figures also found New Zealand had the highest suicide rates among teenagers aged 15 to 19 in the OECD. 

The Government has made some efforts to address mental health issues specific to Asian communities in New Zealand.

The Strategy to Prevent and Minimise Gambling Harm aims to reduce health inequities due to gambling harm for priority populations, including Asian communities and young people.

The repeal and replacement of the Mental Health Act involved targeted engagement with Asian communities.

But AFS’ national director Kelly Feng said “currently, the Ministry of Health has no policy for Asian mental health, which means no strategy”.

Stigma around mental health prevents Asian people talking openly about it

After a few of her family members died by suicide, Feng decided to become an advocate for mental health.

Feng was a doctor in China before coming to New Zealand, where she became aware of significant gaps in the country's mental health sector.

"I realised that there’s a lot of equity issues around migrants and refugees … We all get screened physically but mental problems are important, too."

Feng said the strong stigma around mental health in Asian communities prevents people from talking openly about their lives.

"There's a lot of shame surrounding mental health … It's seen as a weakness."

AFS also found that 98.7% of Asians in New Zealand it surveyed believed the public holds negative stereotypes against people with mental illnesses.

'Where's the support for young Asian people?'

Romy Lee, a Korean New Zealander working in the mental health sector, said religion can help migrants in foreign spaces build communities but these communities also result in entrenched social obligations.

Reflecting on the Korean community in particular, Romy said people felt obliged to put their best face forward.

The attitude of her parents' generation towards mental health is "one of shame". 

"My parents' generation were brought up by people who were in the Korean War and I can't imagine the toll that would have on a parent-child relationship,” the 24-year-old said.

"They don't feel confident enough to speak openly about mental health because of the shame that that brings up.” 

In many Asian communities, “mental health problems are associated with weakness and embarrassment”, Romy said.

Romy said the Government is failing to address wider problems within Asian communities.

"So if you're covering gambling problems, where's the support for young Asian people?"

‘I’ve given you a perfect life, why do you need therapy?’

Emily, a 21-year-old Chinese student, said growing up in an Asian family has made it difficult to confront mental health problems. 

Emily has asked Re: to keep her identity anonymous as she doesn’t want to offend family members. 

"In Asian families, it's really hard to talk about your emotions, it's something that never gets to be addressed.

"You have to go through something traumatic to get help."

Both of Emily’s parents are refugees of the Vietnam War who were adopted by New Zealand families. 

"Our parents' generation have gone through war, they’ve been through seriously traumatic events."

She said the generational divide between her and her parents’ experiences creates misunderstanding.

"They wouldn't understand. It's like ‘I’ve given you a perfect life, why do you need therapy?’”

Emily said she has never been to a counselling session because of the guilt she feels towards her mother.

"My mum started from nothing and gave me such a privileged life. If she ever found out that I was going to therapy, it would break her heart thinking she didn’t raise me as well as she thought."

Emily said she doubts the system would be able to provide her with a suitable counsellor as she felt very few people would understand generational trauma. 

This 'service gap' is a major issue for Asian people in New Zealand

Feng said Asian people "go through the mainstream system, are put on a waiting list, then can’t get help because of the lack of clinicians who are culturally and linguistically capable”.

“Even when patients do speak English, there's a lot of cultural complexity that clinicians can’t understand.”

A Ministry of Health spokesperson said “change is already under way and the range of services and support available is increasing for people across Aotearoa, driven by the Government’s cross-government $1.9 billion package for mental wellbeing in Budget 2019”.

“For instance, the Access and Choice programme being rolled out nationally provides free primary mental health and addiction services in general practices across the country, as well as in kaupapa Māori, Pacific and youth-specific settings.”  

Feng said there is work in progress but there needs to be culturally specific support for Asian communities in New Zealand, a sentiment echoed in AFS’ 2021 report.

The report found that for almost two decades, no new research systematically taps into Asians’ wellbeing and mental health in New Zealand. 

The last nationwide Asian mental health research was carried out in 2002.

"Asians are a significant population in New Zealand and we need proper allocation of funding and resources in order to address these issues.”

Top Image: An Asian woman looking stressed. (File photo) Photo: iStock

*Lisa is not her real name. 

Where to get help:

  • 1737: The nationwide, 24/7 mental health support line. Call or text 1737 to speak to a trained counsellor.
  • Suicide Crisis Line: Free call 0508 TAUTOKO or 0508 828 865. Nationwide 24/7 support line operated by experienced counsellors with advanced suicide prevention training. 
  • Youthline: Free call 0800 376 633, free text 234. Nationwide service focused on supporting young people.
  • OUTLine NZ: Freephone 0800 OUTLINE (0800 688 5463). National service that helps LGBTIQ+ New Zealanders access support, information and a sense of community. 

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