8 Tips for Talking About Mental Health With Your Asian Family

If you can, find resources within the Asian community to help normalize the issue. Local community organizations in your city can be helpful conversation starters and might have resources to support your discussion. Another good way to get the conversation going is awareness campaigns that emphatically include Asian communities, such as the Canadian Bell Let’s Talk initiative or the NYC Thrive campaign. These types of campaigns usually have flyers and pamphlets on their website in different languages; see if you can find one that your parents speak. It’s okay if you don’t live in the same city, any information can be helpful here.

In my work with South Asian families, I’ve noticed that they responded more openly to concrete symptoms—such as trouble sleeping, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath—rather than abstract emotions like feeling unfulfilled or empty. Research has also shown that Asian psychiatric patients tend to focus on the physical symptoms of mental health instead of emotional ones. Structuring your conversation to include physical symptoms you’re experiencing may be more effective in capturing the attention and empathy of your family.

3. Fold mental health discussions into conversations about current events.

One opportunity to bring up mental health and emotional difficulties is by checking in with your family and elders to see how they’re coping based on current events that affect your communities. For example, the recent and horrific mass shooting in Atlanta, climate events in your home country, or political events (such as the farmers’ protest in India and violence against Uyghur or Rohingya community). Based on your relationship with your parents, this tip can be tough to even conceive of trying, which is completely understandable. But in some cases, it can also help you and your family feel closer to each other or at least understand each other better.

If you haven’t yet talked about your own mental health experiences with your family, talking about that while also talking about this kind of incident can be really difficult. Don’t push yourself to do both if it’s too much. But even without sharing about your own personal journey, this kind of conversation can be a good time to start normalizing the concepts of emotional health, stress, anxiety, or depression. Ask open-ended questions about your family’s emotional reactions to the events. For example, instead of asking, “Does X event make you feel bad/worried?” ask “what bothers/worries you about X event?” Let them know you’re always open to talking about emotional experiences, and try to mirror their language when describing their emotional experiences.

4. Use “I” statements to help get your point across.

Positive communication strategies can go a long way in diffusing the intensity in difficult conversations. These strategies also help to keep the conversation from becoming personal because they focus on the actions (behavior or words) instead of the person doing the actions.

An example of a positive communication strategy is using “I-statements. This is when what you say is centered on your experience, instead of the other person’s actions. I-statements are a non-defensive, non-blaming way to begin a conversation.

All I-statements follow a format:

“I feel _____ when you say/do _______ because [impact on you].”

An example is: I feel hurt when you comment on what I eat, because it makes me feel bad about the way I look.

You can look up some worksheets for practice here. You may need to change exactly how you deliver this based on your own personality, your parents’ personalities, and the various dynamics of your relationships. That’s okay! The point is to focus on sharing how you feel in whichever way feels most natural to you rather than pointing to someone else’s behavior in a way that could make them feel more on-guard.

5. Be prepared to answer questions.

Approach the conversation with an open mind, and be prepared to answer your family’s questions. They may ask the same questions in many different ways. Try to be as transparent about your experience as you can. Help them understand what you are saying and approach the conversation from a place of curiosity.

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