In the Mind of Your ‘Model Minority’

Contributing writer Tara Alahakoon ’25 looks at the recent campus discussion on mental health from the vantage point of her Asian American heritage. She argues that the counseling center should train staff to be aware of all cultural traditions.

“Well, you’re only human.” Upon expressing my stressors to a friend, I was struck by their response. Not only did this sentiment bring me no comfort, I somehow felt minimized. But why did I feel that being “only human” implied being inferior? I then recognized that I’d been holding myself to inhuman standards — and as an Asian American, I’m likely not alone in this.

I come from one of the many Asian immigrant families who arrived in the United States with hope and firm belief in the “American Dream.” My parents worked tirelessly to establish themselves in this country, and as I’m the first in my family to be educated in America, I assume responsibility for executing this belief as we continue to take root.

As the daughter of civil war escapees, I was raised in a household in which mental illness is not perceived as real suffering, and I learned from a young age to bottle up any psychological distress. When I struggle, as all humans do, seeking help is never an instinct. I know that this is an experience shared by many other Asian Americans as well — every day, we bear the weight of fulfilling an oversimplified “American Dream” without regard to how this affects us mentally, and shouldering that burden has become our normal.

On top of any other struggles we may be experiencing — which we often downplay and disregard — many of us subconsciously view ourselves through the lens of the “model minority” myth: the stereotype that generalizes Asian Americans as smart, hardworking, submissive and socioeconomically successful. Even understanding it to be false, we endure an inescapable pressure from our communities to live up to these unattainable expectations. We internalize this obligation to succeed, endangering our mental well-being as we scrutinize our failures in contrast to the perfection we are supposed to so easily attain.

Even as the myth leaves us susceptible to feelings of inadequacy, it discourages Asian Americans from accessing mental health resources when we need them, leaving us underrepresented as patients as we strive to align with our racial profile. And as the myth entails self-reliance and healthy mental functions, even those who do seek help are often undertreated.

In light of the recent discussions surrounding mental health, I ask that campus health professionals be trained to contextualize each individual’s needs and experiences within their unique cultural mindsets, as the impact of the “model minority” myth, or any racial stereotype for that matter, cannot be overlooked. Cultural training for one particular subgroup, such as anti-Black racism, is not sufficient preparation to treat all groups with their respective issues; people of color cannot all be effectively therapized the same.

Within the Asian community, we cannot continue to uphold our members as model minorities: an unrealistic, oversimplified idea about a diverse category of people. We’re only human, after all.