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Health and wellness

How Asian parents’ definition of ‘success’ just adds to mental health stresses

Jason Hung says pressure from Asian parents to go to a good university and get a well-paying job is exacerbated for those living with mental health issues, who often define success very differently – such as by having normal, healthy interactions with others

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2018, 1:32pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2018, 2:30pm

In early March, I was elated when I secured two offers from University College London for graduate studies. The joy and excitement prompted me to share the news with my mum. However, her instant response was: “Why are they not Oxbridge offers?” 

This entrenched results-oriented culture is often seen in Asian families. As a Hong Kong-born Chinese, I understand but certainly cannot agree with such parenting styles. 

Indeed, I often attribute my nine-year psychiatric history to stressful, unsympathetic Asian parenting styles. And this would seem to be confirmed by a recent talk with Dr May Lam, a specialist in psychiatry and co-chair of the Butterfly Programme at Variety Children’s Charity of Hong Kong.

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Within Hong Kong Chinese families, she said, many parents of children with mental health disorders “define their children’s success as no longer taking medication, no longer seeing doctors, getting good jobs, earning money and setting up their families”. 

An Asian friend with a seven-year psychiatric history, who has an offer from Oxford University, also encountered demanding parental expectations in her early years, with her parents requiring her to obtain “the most intellectual and competitive” degrees. 

Asian parents are often concerned about how much glory, pride and money their children can bring home, by studying at a “big name” university and earning substantial sums later on. Yet, these parents overlook or forget that success can come in many forms. 

My friend insists that being happy is now all she wants, regardless of whether she will be an Oxford alumni one day. While echoing that happiness is a major indicator of “success”, I believe that being healthy – mentally, socially or otherwise – should be my lifelong goal.

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Lam said students with psychiatric problems often define success as being “normal” and “able to interact with friends like before they had the psychiatric problems”. 

Some may think it is absurd to set daily interactions with people as a life goal. But these people clearly do not realise how unachievable daily interactions can be for many with mental health disorders, including myself. 

There are three situations that can cause a relapse in psychiatric conditions: self-termination of treatment or medication; drug or other substance abuse; and, substantial stress in everyday life.

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Undue parental expectations can result in adverse outcomes as many attempt to encourage their children to use their willpower, rather than medication, to control a mental health illness, and maintain similar expectations even when they acknowledge that their children have mental health issues. 

Lam argues that discrepancies between how children with mental health disorders and their parents define success often results in more stress among the children.

Parents should have reasonable expectations for their children. However, Asian parents often lack understanding and empathy of their children’s health conditions. 

This leads to a lack of emotional support for those with mental health disorders, whose stress then accumulates. My friend tells me her parents have begun to understand her mental health situation and give her more autonomy in decision-making. I hope my mum can understand and accept me in the same way. One day, we will eventually understand that money cannot buy health and happiness.

Jason Hung will be a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, this summer and is a former visiting scholar at UCLA