Angel Xing, CHAIM Centre Communications and Strategy Intern
Three CHAIM Centre Affiliates shared their experiences as Asian researchers for Asian Heritage Month in May, discussing social and cultural health inequities, particularly in mental health.
Dr. Melissa Chee, an assistant professor in Carleton's Neuroscience department and principal investigator at The Chee Lab, said she started reflecting more on how her Southeast Asian identity affects her professional career when the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement sparked discussions about systemic racism.
"It's still a discovery process for me," she said. "I know that lately I've been more aware, and I sometimes pause to ask; am I not part of that, or am I part of that because I'm Asian?"
Asians are often treated as the "model minority," a stereotype that characterizes Asians as academically and economically successful compared to other minority groups. According to an article by NPR, this undermines anti-Asian hate and creates a racial divide.
Dr. Chee commented on the impact of this stereotype. "Asian women are actually underrepresented in science, and I feel I need to succeed in my role so others will continue to have the same opportunity," she said.
Ajani Asokumar, who identifies as Tamil and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Carleton, agreed. "It made me really nervous because I have these expectations and pressures on me that I have to fulfill," she said, adding that sometimes she felt like she was being treated differently in academic and social settings. "You can detect it in the comments people make."
In addition to the pressures, Asokumar also pointed out that Asian immigrant families don't often discuss stress and mental health, both heavily stigmatized topics.
"In the Asian cultures typically, mental ill health is looked upon as almost shameful, a reflection of laziness," said Dr. Zul Merali, former scientific director of the University of Ottawa's Institute of Mental Health Research. Dr. Merali identifies with the South Asian community.
"But mental illness is an illness like any other," he said. "It is not something you need to blame yourself for."
Unfortunately, the pressure from Asian stereotypes combined with cultural mental health stigmas makes the Asian community more vulnerable to poor mental health. In 2016, CAMH reported that Chinese and South Asian patients had more severe mental illnesses when they were admitted to the hospital.
Another issue the CAMH report identifies is that there is limited data on Chinese and South Asian patients in mental health research and general health research.
Dr. Chee and Asokumar said an issue lies in the "Asian" categorization.
"The Asian community is really diverse in Canada," Dr. Chee said. Besides different ethnicities and cultures, variables also include time spent in Canada and language barriers. "The experiences of someone new to Canada are very different from my experiences. I've been here my whole life."
Asokumar added that mental health help is often only designed for Western people and feels alienating because the professionals don't have the same cultural understanding. "The help that's given is so general," she said. "We need better access to people who are better suited to help our needs."
"When you present an opportunity, it might not be accessible to everyone equally."
Dr. Merali said there are also great challenges in getting admission and treatment into the healthcare system, particularly for mental health, because the system is under-resourced. He said this affects all marginalized groups, especially because support like psychological counselling often requires private insurance.
"All marginalized populations pay the price," he said. Since people from these communities cannot access mental health resources as easily, Dr. Merali said they are underrepresented in collected data for mental health studies.
That said, Asokumar said she does feel like there are more people of colour in her program than there were in 2013 when she first came to Ottawa. She said there had been significant changes compared to when she was one of the few people of colour in her program.
"I'm seeing more people who look like me, so it's a very positive thing that's happening," she said.
But she said she still sees mostly white men in authority positions. "I think more needs to be done. I do want to see more action," Asokumar said.
Dr. Chee agreed there should be an increase in the diversity of people who sit on committees. "It's always on the back of your mind whether you were included because you're the token minority. Was I included because I am a minority and a woman? Or was I included because of my ability or expertise?"
"We don't know whether our identity has hindered our ability to accelerate in our field," Dr. Chee said. "We think that we are here because we earned and deserve it, but how do we know that we didn't deserve more?"
"We need more research. We need information and advocacy."