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Shame and stigma: Asian cultural issues preventing mental health care

Vanessa Shiliwala demystifies Asian stigma in her podcast dedicated to mental health.
Shame and stigma: Asian cultural issues preventing mental health care
Posted at 12:39 PM, May 04, 2023

Vanessa Tsang Shiliwala knew something wasn’t right after the birth of her daughter in 2018.

Wrought with anxiety, Shiliwala couldn’t sleep. Was her baby OK? Was she doing enough as a mom? 

The classic symptoms of postpartum depression escaped Shiliwala, who was raised in a Chinese Taiwanese immigrant family in Wisconsin. 

“For a lot of us in the community, we didn’t have the language to identify these issues,” she said. 

Shame and stigma. That’s what often happens when Asian Americans seek out mental health help. In a culture that demands perfection, having mental health issues is often seen as a sign of weakness in Asian immigrant communities.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Asian Americans were 60% less likely to have received mental health treatment as compared to non-Hispanic White Americans. A 2019 study revealed suicide was the leading cause of death for Asian American and Pacific Islanders ages 15 to 24. 

Understanding the Asian culture around mental health stigma, Shiliwala knew she needed to do something. In the depths of the pandemic, she launched Thrive Spice, a podcast and digital media platform centered on the Asian American mental health experience while navigating career, family, identity and other issues.  

Shiliwala is celebrating her second year at Thrive Spice Media this May during Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. She learned everything on her own on how to produce a podcast at home in New Rochelle, New York, during the shutdown. It takes about 30 hours of editing to produce the one-hour podcast, she said.

As a former corporate marketing manager with a communications degree from New York University, Shiliwala, 37, put those skills to work marketing her podcast. The sessions cover mental health topics and resources that elevate specific identities and communities. Thrive Spice has also been featured as an AAPI mental health and wellness resource by Harvard University and the National Association for Mental Illness.

Data from the National Latino and Asian American Study (NLAAS) found that Asian Americans have a 17% lifetime rate of any psychiatric disorder. Yet Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services than White Americans. 

For Asian American women, mental health has been especially perilous, Shiliwala said. When she moved to New York City from Wisconsin at the age of 18 for college, she was met with fetishization as Asian women have been stereotyped in media as being meek and docile, she said.

Asian women would then blame themselves for the victimization, questioning whether they invited the harassing behavior, Shiliwala added. In her youth, Shiliwala was called racist names as well as terms such as China doll. 

“We blame ourselves because of the deep shame that comes with it,” she said. “We’re taught not to speak out. We are to shut up and told to go back to where we came from.”

Launching Thrive Spice opened the door to discussion on these microaggressions for Asians. There’s unity when there are others who openly discuss their journey with mental health, she said. 

Shiliwala hopes that her safe space for AANHPI people helps saves lives.

“We just want to feel safe,” she said. “ No one should have to suffer alone and in silence.”         

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