The Lexington Asian Mental Health Initiative Invites You to a Community Forum

Balancing Stress and Success – An Asian American Perspective

By Laurie Atwater

The demographics in Lexington are changing. Our Asian population is increasing and it is especially notable that 30 percent of school aged children are of Asian descent (Chinese, Indian and Korean). The pressures facing all students in affluent communities: pressure to create a “resume” of impressive extracurricular activities, the accumulation of AP credits and test prep craziness, often combine with culturally specific problems to create excessive stress and can lead to depression, anxiety and suicidality among our Asian American students.


What does the data tell us about Lexington’s Asian-American students and parents?
How can you help your child balance stress and success?
How does immigration influence mental health?
How can you communicate better with your child?
What resources are available to help?
Tim Dugan, M.D., Assistant Clinical Professor Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School
Rama Rao Gogineni, M.D., Dir., Div. of Adolescent Psychiatry,
Cooper University Health Care
Josephine Kim, Ph.D., Lecturer, Harvard School of Education
Ed Wang, Psy.D, Director, Multicultural Affairs, Mass. Dept. of Mental Health
The Breaking Silences performance with Christina Chan and Pata Suyemoto
Lexington Asian students

Although financial problems are often the drivers of health disparities among immigrant groups, this is not the case in Lexington. Pressures on Lexington’s Asian American children come from two sources: family and society. Family pressures revolve around performance and achievement and respect for parental sacrifice. Societal pressures include the difficulty of straddling two cultures, dealing with stereotypes, prejudice and bullying. Young Asian American women (15-24) have the highest suicide rates across all racial and ethnic groups according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Three decades of NAMI research on Asian American mental health shows that Asian Americans exhibit high numbers of depressive symptoms and suicide is the fifth-leading cause of death among Asian Americans, compared to the ninth-leading cause of death for Non-Hispanic white Americans.

Asian American teens experiencing mental health issues do not want to appear problematic or create problems for their families. Success is very important in Asian families so Asian American students who are having a difficult time academically may become depressed and isolated because asking for help can be interpreted as a weakness. Feelings of shame accompany issues of mental health in many Asian families, in fact, Asian attitudes toward mental illness are generally negative. Asian parents may feel that it reflects poorly on their parenting. Asian Americans as a group do not seek mental health help. At Lexington Youth and Family Services (LYFS) the therapists began to notice a pattern: Asian kids would drop by for help, but they wouldn’t come back. That was 2011.

This was concerning to Marsha Lazar who was the director at LYFS at the time. “It really jumped off the page at me when I saw the numbers,” she said in a recent phone conversation. While Asian kids were coming to LYFS at a percentage that reflects the number of Asian students (29%) at the high school, it was difficult to get them into therapy because they wouldn’t involve their parents according to Lazar. As a former community organizer, this struck her initially as a health disparity. “These kids are under as much or more stress than the Caucasian kids, but they don’t have access to the same kind of support because they don’t feel free to tell their parents they are having problems.”

When she began to ask Lexington therapists ‘what’s this all about?’ Lazar encountered lots of acknowledgement and agreement on the subject. For whatever reason, Asian kids were not getting the mental health help they needed. For Lazar who is also a social worker, it was time to jump into action. LYFS needed more information, so they wrote a small grant and submitted it to CHNA 15 (Community Health Network Area). They were approved for $5K and that got them started.

They put together a committee with members from LYFS, the Indian Americans of Lexington (IAL), Sophia Ho and Peter Lee from the Chinese American Association of Lexington (CAAL), Lexington parents Wenjie Cheng, Eileen Jay, Gwen Wong, Lorelle Yee, Fuang Ying Huang and Nirmalla Garimella, students, clinicians and representatives from the Lexington human services department, Officer Hsien Kai Hsu of the Lexington Police Department and Lexington public school Guidance Counselor Cynthia Tang. “The fact that we got buy-in from all of these community partners was so encouraging,” Lazar says. “The police had 2 to 3 people there every meeting,” she says. Emily Lavine, Lexington’s Assistant Director of Youth and Family Services and new youth outreach coordinator Matt Ryan have also been involved.

One of the most exciting initiatives that the committee has been able to complete was spearheaded by “two hotshot kids” (as Lazar calls them) from LHS. Asian American students Sirena Luo and Charlotte Wong Lebow were able to get a special survey incorporated into the junior year health curriculum. Soon they will also have results from a freshman survey and will present their findings at the forum. In addition to the student surveys, Lazar has received 147 parent surveys that were conducted with the help of CAAL. She is very excited to be able to present the findings to a wider audience at the upcoming.

CAAL president Peter Lee is very excited about the program and hopeful that they will get a good turnout from CAAL families. “This is how we as a community, we as parents, can help our kids,” he commented in a recent phone conversation. “I think it’s pretty universal for Asian parents—you want to see your kids succeed.” Peter feels that Asian parents and kids often don’t know how to communicate when it comes to these issues. “The problem is out there,” he says, “and I don’t think people are really aware of how much of a problem it is. I do think communication is critical.” Peter is hopeful that the forum will help both parents and students. “I think there’s a lot that each group can learn from each other,” he states. “How do kids talk with their parents about the challenges they may be having? How do parents listen? That’s a good place to start and a good reason to attend the forum,” he says.

“We really want to invite people to join us for this forum!” Lazar says. Participation among all groups in the Asian community is especially important to the success of this initiative. Tim Dugan, LYFS Chairman of the Board and Clinical Consultant also has high hopes. As a Lexington resident, Tim is vested in the community and its kids. “We’ve been working together to understand what Asian kids need, what parents need and how we can respond as a community,” he says. “We are so proud to have joined together with Lexington’s Asian parents and community organizations to learn how we can better support Asian students.”

The greatest hope is that the Asian families in Lexington really run with this opportunity. “All parents want the best for their kids, but sometimes it’s not clear what the best thing is,” says Tim Dugan. “In the end, we are reminded again, that we were all kids of immigrants at one time or the other and needed help of one kind or the other to develop truly satisfying lives. We hope that all members of the Lexington community can join us in a joint contemplation of strain, challenge and hope.”

One thing is certain—if parents are involved the forum will be more successful. Please plan to attend this very special program.


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