A recent New York Post front-page story on the apparent suicide of Cupertino, Calif., native, Diana Chien, 19, told of the fatal plunge the New York University sophomore took from her boyfriend’s midtown Manhattan apartment after a year of courtship and a night of quarreling. But the issue of increasing depression among Asian Pacific American youth, especially young women, was nowhere to be found in the story.
The notion of the “model minority” paints a picture of hard-working, studious APA youth who excel in academics and attend top schools. But, at the same time that this stereotype thrusts APA youth into society’s limelight, it also casts a shadow on the disturbing number of APA women and men who suffer from behavioral problems, substance abuse and mental health problems.
“APAs are continually being ignored in the mental health area, where there is a high need for it, and faced with exclusions from reports,” said John Osaki, executive director of the Japanese Community Youth Council. “APA youth are overlooked, and the existing data that is out there is not directed toward APA youth.”
Staggering statistics show the prevalence of depression among San Francisco youth. Filipino and Pacific Islanders are among the highest percentage of youth in middle school (70.9 percent) who report having been depressed during the past 12 months, or who have felt bad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more. They also constitute the second highest percentage (24 percent) of youth who have had thoughts of committing suicide, according to a 2001 Youth Risk and Behavior Study administered by the San Francisco Unified School District every two years.
Suicide was a leading cause of death for APA youth, second only to unintentional deaths, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and in 2003, the American Psychological Association found that APA girls had the highest rate of depressive symptoms of all racial groups and the highest suicide rate among women 15-24.
Born and raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown, 19-year-old Kimberly Kuang, who graduated from San Francisco’s Philip Burton High School last year, said many teenagers face pressure in school, whether it is doing well academically or fitting in socially, but added there is also pressure at home.
“I can really relate to these problems because I saw depression, substance abuse, violence happen to the students around me at school,” said Kuang, a San Francisco Youth Commissioner for District 3. “Pressures happens after school when students go home to their parents’ expectations.”
She said many APA parents expect their children to attend Lowell or UC Berkeley. Kuang attends City College of San Francisco and says there’s absolutely no problem or shame to that.
“Is it really that important to get into the top colleges?” said Kuang. “Sometimes APA parents fail to recognize some of the issues their child may be going through at school. All they do is focus on GPAs.”
Angered by the lack of focus and attention toward APA youth even after reports have showed increasing incidents of delinquency, violence and depression, a consortium of more than 20 San Francisco-based APA community organizations and youth advocates released a report highlighting the statistics and needs of young APAs.
Spearheaded by the Services and Advocacy for Asian Youth Consortium (SAAY), “Moving Beyond Exclusion: Focusing on the Needs of Asian Pacific Islander Youth in San Francisco” is the result of a two-year study and survey of more than 300 APA youth in San Francisco. The reason for this report: Although APAs account for 43 percent of youth aged 5 to 17 years old in San Francisco, they are often overlooked or given low priority in discussions about mental health, substance abuse and juvenile justice needs, or are considered to be unaffected by these experiences. Many say this is a misconception that needs to be addressed so that change can be effected.
“This study represents two years of hard work and research, and for the first time, a report of this nature can expose the myth of the model minority,” said San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi. “Look at the juvenile justice system and we can attest to the fact that it has been a longstanding problem. APA youth are equally affected in the system, if not more so.”
According to the report, Chinese, Vietnamese and Filipino youth have had the most arrests over the past decade, with Vietnamese youth having the highest arrest rate (96.6 per 1,000 population) of APA youth when all arrests were taken into account.
Moreover, the number of APA girls referred to probation between 1990 and 2000 jumped by 169 percent, whereas the APA population aged 10 to 17 years old increased by only 6 percent.
Bill Johnston, assistant chief probation officer at the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department, said his department supports the recommendations outlined in the report and will accordingly increase the capacity of the juvenile probation department to APA youth. He also hopes to increase the department’s cultural sensitivity.
“We are also working on reducing school bullying and domestic violence experienced by APA youth,” he said.
According to Johnston, in a 12-month period, APA youth accounted for 13 to 14 percent of all youth arrested and brought into the juvenile detention center.
The report focused on juvenile justice, behavioral health and a survey targeted at children and teenagers. Organizers said public and parental misconceptions of APA youth preclude an accurate assessment because the needs and issues of APA youth are rarely examined when youth issues are discussed. In addition, past studies have neglected to recognize the various ethnicities of APAs and, instead, have grouped them under the same category.
Some recommendations include increasing awareness of depression and mental health issues affecting APA youth, and ensuring that schools are supportive and make an effort to do outreach, and that resources are available to students and their parents. Other suggestions include: creating community awareness of parents and neighbors about the prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse in their communities; collaborating with law enforcement agencies about crime and drug dealings; reducing incidences of domestic violence; and increasing sensitivity and cultural competence of court personnel, police officers and school administrators.
Some other key findings from Moving Beyond Exclusion: Focusing on the Needs of Asian Pacific Islander Youth in San Francisco include:
• Seventy-one percent of APA youth reported feeling depressed at least once a week. Females report experiencing more depression than males, (82 percent compared to 63 percent).
• Although immigrant youth state they are depressed more than U.S. born youth, they report more positive coping strategies to deal with depression, such as participating in a program, using art and going to church. In contrast, U.S. born youth are more likely to keep it to themselves.
• One-third to one-half of APA youth state that at least one of their four closest APA friends sue marijuana, alcohol or other drugs.
• During 1999, APA youth had the highest percentage of placement out of the home at 44.3 percent of the 212 adjudicated; And of that, Cambodian youth had the highest percentage at 71.4 percent placement out of the home after adjudication. Chinese, Samoan and Filipino youth constituted the largest numbers among APA groups receiving institutional placements.
• Samoan youth have the second highest arrest rate in the city and have high recidivism rates.
• APA youth are experiencing and observing violence at school and traveling to school; in the survey, every youth reported routinely seeing at least one fight on their way to school and at least one fight at school.
• More than half of APA youth state that they see drug dealers in their neighborhood at least once a week; 88 percent of Cambodian youth surveyed said they also witness this activity.
• APA youth have relatively high rates of victimization in the form of interpersonal violence. At least one-third of APA youth report being hit by their partners (boy/girlfriend); 39 percent of males and 41 percent of females report this victimization.