Over the past few decades, the Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi American (APIDA) community has progressed rapidly into the American collective consciousness. Since the Immigration Act of 1965, APIDA community members have excelled in many high-achieving fields, often in the public eye. This has created a distinct reputation for APIDA – as model minority members.
The overwhelming pressure to meet racial expectations has sewn great consequences for APIDA community members, and especially for APIDA students.
Perfectionism and achievement anxiety abound within the APIDA community. Yet these mental health struggles are seen as the cost of success, rather than as signals of a necessary perspective-shift. Perfectionism has its rewards, but so does a healthier relationship to achievement and success.
To explore achievement anxiety within this large, diverse community, we must first take a look at the history of APIDA in the US.
APIDA include Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi Americans. This community has a complex and fraught history with the United States of America including immigration bans, internment, colonization, and racism.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of the unique history of the APIDA community is the labelling and designation of the community.
For a long time (and still today), the APIDA community was referred to as the Asian American community. The term “Asian American” is a general term that encompasses anyone in the United States who has an ethnic history with one of the 48 countries in the largest continent in the world – Asia.
Later, the Pacific Islander community was merged with the Asian American community due to their similar experiences with imperialization and geographic proximity. Thus, the AAPI (Asian-American and Pacific Islander) community was born.
In recent years, people have referred to the AAPI community as the APIDA community to highlight the grand difference between South Asian Americans (also referred to as Desi Americans) and other Asian Americans in terms of culture and immigration experience. Nonetheless, this acronym still fails to highlight the immense diversity in the APIDA community.
The racial and ethnic designation of “Asian” has never been accurate. It is simply a geographic designation. Each and every country in Asia and the Pacific Islands are vastly different from one another including different languages, religions, food, clothing, traditions, and cultures.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Daniel Sanji, a queer, multiracial, Japanese American at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Daniel works at the APIDA Center within the Multicultural Center, goes even further to describe: “The APIDA community is diverse, so I suggest caution when using broad strokes to describe the APIDA experience. There is not one APIDA culture, so there is not one APIDA experience.”
Daniel and I talked heavily about our experiences as APIDA-identifying individuals. My experience as a South Asian American was vastly different from his experience as a Japanese American–but there are many similarities. The biggest similarity is the external pressure on us both, as members (specifically students) of the APIDA community.
To understand the external pressures on APIDA, one must understand one key concept: the model minority myth. The model minority myth is a tool used to pit racial and ethnic minorities against one another by perpetuating an idea that APIDA are “model minorities.”
According to this ideology, APIDA do well in school and work in high-paying fields, thus any racial and ethnic minority should be able to do the same. Any success in the face of barriers is used to dismiss the existence of said barriers. However, on the other side of the coin, a lack of success affronts model minority expectations, magnifying mental health struggles. APIDA are stuck between a rock and a hard place, grinding in unsustainable routines – without a perspective shift.
Daniel Sanji and I both went to a STEM-focused high school where the high expectations of APIDA students felt unbearable. Another former classmate of mine, Jhil Patel, a South-Asian American that formerly attended Washington University – St. Louis and now attends Northwestern University, spoke of a similar pressure in our high school: “In our high school, it was always a competition. I felt that I had to be perfect in order to be accepted as a ‘true’ APIDA.”
This expectation to be an academic superstar is the norm amongst APIDA students, and the overwhelming pressure does not stop when APIDA students come home.
Many APIDA immigrant parents expect academic and professional greatness from their children. All of this pressure adds a severe weight on APIDA youth that quickly forms an unhealthy mindset that they must be perfect at all costs. For some, this mindset develops into a unique condition referred to as “high-functioning anxiety.”
Dr. Helen Hsu, lead outreach specialist, staff psychologist, Asian American specialist, and lecturer at Stanford University, explains this condition further: “High-functioning anxiety is not an official diagnosis in the DSM, but it is commonly understood in the field of psychology as a type of generalized anxiety disorder where the individual can still exhibit traits like perfectionism and academic achievement. In the APIDA community, these habits are highly rewarded and praised, so academic burnout and high-functioning anxiety are common amongst APIDA youth.”
Dr. Hsu’s explanation of high-functioning anxiety in the APIDA community aligns perfectly with the societal and cultural expectations denoted by Daniel Sanji and Jhil Patel. Their experience in a STEM-focused high school in suburban Illinois was not unique. The external pressure on APIDA students is an almost universal experience that both bonds and breaks us.
To identify the cause of the prevalence of high-functioning anxiety in the APIDA community, we must look both internally and externally. As mentioned previously, there is a high external pressure thrusted upon APIDA youth by the American “majority,” but within the APIDA community itself, a fixed, unhelpful mindset also proliferates.
Anagha Arla, a South Asian American that attends Saint Louis University, explains this attitude further through her lived experience: “Everyone is responsible for persisting this toxic mindset of success at all costs. However, there is a heavy up-down approach where the older generation enforces the expectation on their kids. This does not mean that the parents are to blame. They are simply products of our society and their own parents.”
Many parents within the APIDA community are immigrants, children of immigrants, or lost generational wealth due to discriminatory policy. The connecting string amongst APIDA parents is that they have all made many sacrifices for their children to have better lives. While this is greatly intentioned and APIDA youth appreciate their parents’ sacrifices, this creates immense pressure on APIDA youth to succeed.
Ranjit Singh, the networks director and Milwaukee network lead of We Are Saath, a non-profit organization focused on mental health awareness in South Asian communities, explains this pressure from APIDA parents: “The concept of power distance explained by Geert Hofstede applies to APIDA parents and children very well.
“Essentially, APIDA parents hold greater power in the relationship between them and their children because they sacrificed so much for them to succeed in the United States. In their eyes, their children must succeed for their sacrifice to be worth it. In the children’s eyes, they must succeed in order to be loved.
“In addition, many APIDA hail from collectivist cultures that form a mindset that if one person succeeds then everyone in the community succeeds. This mindset fosters competition between APIDA students which creates a harmful environment for APIDA youth.”
As mentioned earlier, these ideas of success and competition are ingrained in the APIDA community. It affects everyone in the community from college students like Daniel Sanji, Jhil Patel, and Anagha Arla to professionals like Dr. Helen Hsu and Ranjit Singh.
As a young APIDA, a large stressor is balancing one’s Asian or Pacific Islander culture and upbringing with the broader culture of the United States. It further makes them feel the need to be perfect. Because society treats them as an “other,” APIDA feel driven to go above and beyond, in order to prove themselves.
All of these expectations, pressures, and stressors can manifest into the complex condition of high-functioning anxiety, where one can succeed academically and professionally while suffering mentally.
The signs and symptoms of high-functioning anxiety can range from a loss of appetite, to fatigue, to people-pleasing, to insomnia, to self-harm.
The most common signs include a neglect for mental and physical health, and overworking. Unfortunately, APIDA communities tend to reward these behaviors, or at best, ignore them. Thus, APIDA who experience high-functioning anxiety believe this is just “the way things are.”
APIDA cultures tend to define a sacrifice of mental and physical health as necessary for success. Anagha Arla describes such an experience with high-functioning anxiety: “I would have anxious episodes that lead to severe physical symptoms. When I was not anxious, I was depressed. In order to feel something, I would resort to self-harm. It was a horrible cycle that, at the time, felt necessary to fulfill my societal role as an APIDA student.” This experience is not an uncommon one.
Jhil Patel’s wellbeing became threatened at a rigorous STEM-focused high school where overworking was the norm: “The height of competition between the APIDA students was the dreaded college application season. I poured myself into college applications and I burnt out. I developed an eating disorder as a result of not eating regularly during my final year of high school. I worked harder than my body and mind could handle.”
During that same time, I personally had a difficult journey with my mental health. I did not attend school. I stopped spending time with friends and family. I barely slept. There were so many warning signs, yet no one spoke up about it.
My behavior was completely “normal” for an APIDA student who had been grinding so hard. The burnout was normal. The disconnection was normal.
However, this was clearly not healthy.
Dr. Hsu explains the greater significance of normalizing high-functioning anxiety: “Not many people talk about the Palo Alto suicide clusters between 2009 and 2015. Of those that do talk about it, almost none talk about that most of the students hailed from the APIDA community.
“These were tragedies, but they were normalized. In my clinical work, I saw many APIDA patients that were high-achieving, from prestigious university students to big tech employees, and every single one of them was not mentally healthy. There is an attitude in the APIDA community and the greater society that an individual is okay as long as they are successfully producing in the economy. This attitude is flawed, and it is a consequence of a capitalistic society that treats the APIDA community as a commodity.”
Dr. Hsu concludes that the APIDA community essentially blinds itself to real struggles, by focusing on external measures of success. Signs and symptoms of high-functioning anxiety and other mental health conditions do not just get swept under the rug – they get put on pedestals. APIDA youth are raised to believe that burnout behavior leads to success and achievement.
If the grand majority of the APIDA community are stuck in an unhealthy mindset, how does the community even start to shift towards a healthier mindset? The best answer is communication.
The greatest perpetuator of the normalization of high-functioning anxiety signs and symptoms is silence. For decades, the APIDA community has done everything to avoid talking about the mental wellbeing of its members. We distract ourselves through academic competition and professional excellence.
Jhil Patel explains the nature of competition in the APIDA community: “We need to celebrate each other’s academic and professional accomplishments. I believe in celebration over competition.” As a community, we must come together even in the face of society’s expectations.
As more APIDA push aside competition and elevate to higher positions, there are more wonderful role models. In her past position as the president of the Asian American Psychological Association, Dr. Helen Tsu learned the following: “It is important to realize that grades are not everything. You must learn to grow as a person which includes setting personal boundaries and developing a healthy self-concept. Your professional and academic career are important, but other aspects of your life are also important like your social skills. As a result, you can start to break the stigma within the APIDA community by talking about your mental health.”
The advice from these role models lays out a practical path forward as a community. It is time to end the silence and break the stigma around living within one’s limits. Everyone’s mental wellbeing will benefit.
Organizations like the Asian American Psychological Association and We Are Saath give great tools and resources for APIDA individuals to address mental health concerns and raise awareness in their local communities.
Above all, the most crucial tool is our voice. The root cause of mental health neglect in APIDA communities is silence. If we stay silent about the prevalent toxicity of high-functioning anxiety, the next generation will continue to starve themselves to get into college and overwork themselves to the point of severe depression. We must share our stories. We have to address these deeply ingrained ideas in our communities.
The APIDA experience is a diverse one, but our greatest collective trait is our strength. Together, we can break the stigma.