Nearly thirteen years ago, a nineteen-year old MIT student, Elizabeth Shin, set herself on fire in her dorm room in Cambridge. Having triggered the smoke alarm, she was discovered “engulfed in flames” by a resident assistant and thereafter, rushed to the hospital where she eventually succumbed to her injuries. According to hospital records, “sixty-five percent of her body” was covered in third-degree burns.
To her parents, classmates and friends, Shin seemed to have it all–academically, at least. She was a high school salutatorian, had nearly perfect SAT scores and gained admittance to a world-class university. She was a intelligent, obedient and dutiful daughter to her Korean immigrant parents, but nobody–not even her loving parents–knew about her mental anguish, depression and suicidal thoughts induced by the difficulties of college. She suffered deeply to maintain the image of a perfect, smart, successful and composed Asian daughter. Ultimately, the pressures were too great leading to tragic death of a brilliant, beautiful and young woman who had so much to offer to the world.
The story of Elizabeth Shin is, sadly, one that I see only too often–though to a less extreme extent. In my sophomore year, an incoming freshman jumped out of her 14th floor dorm room and fell to her death. She was much like Shin; she graduated at the top of her class, planned to double-major in English and Math, was an exceptional musician and Asian-American. On our campus, it was devastating to lose another one of our own but it wasn’t wholly unexpected given the atmosphere of stress and competition that casts a cloud over our university. We pride ourselves at being one of the most stressful and top-ranked colleges in the nation but, at what cost to our student population? Why have we, as a society and culture, allowed the suicide of Asian college students to become the norm and a statistic?
In the Asian-American community, there is a compulsive need and pressure to succeed and maintain a perfect exterior, whether socially, academically and/or physically, when on the inside, many of us suffer mentally and emotionally. Many of us are afraid to seek help and counseling to deal with our issues, either from friends, adults or mental health professionals–least of all, our parents–because it is a seen as “shameful”, “weak” and “losing face” to confront something as intangible and opaque as our mental health.
How do Asian-Americans typically deal with this problem? The truth is, we don’t. We hide it, which contributes to the stigma against seeking mental health. We pretend everything everything is okay. Everything is perfect, when slowly, everything is actually falling apart. We bury ourselves in more work and place even more pressure on ourselves to compensate for the inadequacy we feel for being unable to cope with our “problems”. For first-generation college students, issues like stress and depression seem so miniscule and “first-world” compared to all the hardships and sacrifices our parents endured to give us the American Dream, so we downplay our suffering and our health deteriorates even further.
How do we stop this damaging and vicious cycle of fear and inaction? How can we, as a community and culture, learn from the story of Elizabeth Shin and those before and after her? We can start by acknowledging and engaging in dialogue about the pervasive issue of depression and suicide in the APA community. As a culture, we must become more accepting of mental health issues among our community members and make strides towards helping them cope with their pain. As a family member, we musn’t be afraid to confront those who are mounting undue pressure upon us or simply to talk to them about our feelings and qualms. As a human being, we must recognize the signs within ourselves and our peers before it is too late and DO something about it. From discussing your mental struggles with a caring friend or refering a friend in trouble to your school’s counseling services/hotline, all that matters is that you take action by being a listening ear or an encouraging voice.
We are all Elizabeth Shin in some way or form. Unlike Shin, however, we still have the power to change the course of our lives and those arounds us. This is a power that we should embrace and use to empower others. Be unafraid. Be an activist. Be the voice of your generation. Be HAAPI.
Read more about Elizabeth Shin and the lawsuit filed by her parents against MIT in this detailed and highly personal profile by the New York Times Magazine.
For more information about how you can prevent suicide in the Asian American community or help a friend in need, please refer to the Asian American Federation’s website filled with facts, resources and help hotline numbers.