Although Asian-Americans have the highest suicide rate among all women, there has been a lack of research on the topic. This lack of information attracted Eliza Noh, assistant professor of Asian-American studies at Cal State Fullerton, to research the subject as an undergraduate at Columbia University.
On April 10 at UC Irvine, Noh discussed her findings on the double marginalization of Asian-American women that leads them to self-destruction. Noh argued that the stereotypes associated with Asian-Americans leads to misinterpretation of instances of suicide.
‘As an undergrad and throughout graduate school, I would always hear that Asian-American students are committing suicide in these really horrific ways,’ Noh said. ‘The assumption was that the tremendous pressure to succeed pushed them over the edge.’
When Noh started her research, the only available data on suicide pertained to white males. Only recently has society recognized suicide among Asian women as a serious problem.
‘[Data] is still scarce, but there seems to be more debate and research on the topic,’ Noh said.
The presentation began with a presentation of data about Asian-American women and suicide. The Center for Disease Control collects data on reported suicides and its statistics show that suicide affects Asian-American women of all age groups.
‘Suicide is the second-leading cause [of death] among Asian-American women,’ Noh said. ‘Asian-American women over 65 have the highest female suicide rate. Similarly, women from 15 to 24 also have the highest suicide rate across race and ethnicity. Asian-American girls in elementary school have the highest rate of depression across gender and race.’
According to Noh, looking at the suicide rates of Asian-American women in the context of different age groups creates a clearer picture of the problem.
‘If you don’t divide the age groups, it looks like Asian-American women don’t have a problem,’ Noh explained. ‘Divide it into different age groups and you see a different picture.’
Aside from being attracted by the novelty of the topic, Noh wanted to tackle the study in a new way, by using personal experiences instead of pure data.
‘There are really no actual research studies,’ Noh said. ‘No control, no observation, no research design. Of the studies that exist, all the data analyses of the suicide narratives are nonexistent. The points of view of the people who survived suicide are nonexistent.’
Noh believes that cultural beliefs have been used inaccurately to explain behavior of Asian-Americans.
‘The tendency to explain Asian-American psychology in social terms, specifically the acculturation model or Confucianism, is problematic,’ Noh said. ‘Not all Asian-Americans have that background. Suicide is explained through acculturation, meaning that suicide is a result of the difficulty to adapt to American lifestyles.’
Asian culture is often contrasted with Western culture, which negatively affects the identity of Asian-Americans.
‘Asian-Americans are supposed to have a hybrid culture,’ Noh said. ‘We can’t assume that Asian-American culture is the same as ancient Asian culture.’
Noh interviewed 26 Asian-American women who survived suicide attempts. The women came from different ethnicities, age groups and sexual orientations.
‘I wanted to emphasize the impact of racism and sexism on suicides,’ Noh said. ‘My thesis was ‘Asian-American women’s suicides can be understood within processes of mental colonization in which race and gender subjection operate as key social processes that influence suicidality.”
All the women interviewed explicitly cited the ‘model minority’ myth or expectations of emotional or economic success.
‘Across the board you see people feeling pressured and are consciously aware of the model minority myth which pushes them,’ Noh said.
Noh found that methods in dealing with violence are passed through generations from mothers to daughters. This led some suicide survivors to express their angst in destructive ways such as bodily mutilation. Rather than using traditional mental health services, the women found alternative healing methods.
‘The most popular strategy of healing that these women employed was writing,’ Noh said. ‘A lot of people practiced spiritual faith, social activism and alternative medicine.’
Hannah Sung, a third-year psychology major, found Noh’s perspective on Asian-American women and suicide refreshing.
‘I thought Professor Noh’s lecture was insightful in bringing in stories about women’s struggles with sexuality and frustration in talking about suicide and depression, rather than bringing in explanations that rely on stereotypes of Asian culture and families,’ Sung said. ‘It shed light on the women as individuals, rather than faceless women who are just ‘Asian.”