In Cupertino, California, Hung Wei, a mother and local school board member, has worked passionately for almost a decade to improve the mental health of Asian American students. Throughout the school year, she gathers her teen staff members from Monta Vista High, a campus with a mostly Asian American student body, to produce Verdadera, a school publication that Wei founded. Verdadera, which means “truthfully” in Spanish, is devoted to honest expression and mental health. In every issue, students write about matters closest to their hearts: love, secrets, dances, body image, sexual identity, relationships with parents, and also intense academic pressures, competition, loneliness, depression and fears for the future.
The impetus for Wei’s work? Her daughter, Diana Chien, a Monta Vista graduate who died by suicide at age 19. Since that profound loss, Wei has poured her energies into nurturing teenagers. “If I can save a few lives, my daughter didn’t go away for nothing,” she says. Not only does Verdadera give students an outlet to express their innermost feelings during the turbulent high school years, but Wei also encourages parents to pay careful attention to their children’s emotional lives.
Wei’s publication is only one remarkable effort around the country that I encountered as I spent a year reporting on the mental health of Asian American students. With funding from a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship, I traveled to different parts of the U.S. to interview Asian American students, parents, college counselors, social workers, psychiatrists and academic experts. Ultimately, I wrote a three-part series that reached a national audience through multiple media outlets.
I found that while most Asian American students are healthy and thriving, a substantial number do struggle emotionally. When Asian American students become depressed—whether it’s due to genetic vulnerability, academic or family pressures, or other problems—they often don’t tell anyone for fear of shaming themselves and causing their families to lose face. Too often, they try to go it alone.
Wei has reached students in a powerful way, but others also have made extensive efforts to understand the special pressures that young Asian Americans face, some of them stemming from cultural conflicts, as well as culturally sensitive ways to help them. For example, after the high-profile suicide of a Chinese-American graduate student in 2007, Stanford University’s Asian American Activities Center surveyed all undergraduate and graduate students of Asian descent about their mental health and the problems that concerned them most. The result: new discussions on campus about stress, depression, perfectionism and family relationships.
I found it inspiring to discover innovative efforts around the country to improve the emotional well-being of Asian American students. I invite you to read the series and to share it with others who care about this important topic.