Asian American women between 15 and 24 had the highest number of suicides among all US women in that age group in 2003, with about 3.5 deaths per 100,000 residents, the US Department of Health and Human Services reported in 2005. And Asian American females had the second highest rate of suicide in every other age group.
The stereotype of Asian cultures being hard-wired for success creates a dangerous image that can devastate the women who do not meet these unrealistic expectations, says Melana Amusa.
Twenty years ago, Eliza Noh had received a call from her parents that she can never forget. They told her that her older sister had purchased a gun in their hometown of Houston and shot herself in the head. As shocking as the news was, Noh says that she and her family – of Korean and Vietnamese descent – had seen it coming.
Her sister, a junior at Houston Baptist University when she died, had attempted suicide before by cutting her wrists. “Growing up in predominantly white schools in Texas, where Asian Americans were marginalized as model minorities and undesirable people, my sister dealt with body image problems,” Noh says. “She hated looking Asian American.”
Her sister underwent cosmetic surgery to have a European bridge put in her nose and eye-widening folds in her upper lids. Her problems didn’t ease with her change in appearance, however.
“She wrote an essay for an English class and got a B. When she asked her professor about it, he said he didn’t give foreign students A’s on English papers,” recalls Noh. Incidentally, Noh and her sister were born in the United States. “This is the kind of racism she would come up against. And that really depressed her,” she adds.
When her sister took her life, Noh was a sophomore at Columbia University in New York. She decided then that she’d dedicate her life to finding out why Asian American women commit suicide.
In 1998, Noh graduated with a doctorate in ethnic studies from the University of California, Berkeley, where she interviewed dozens of Asian American women who had attempted suicide or had overcome chronic depression. Today, she is an assistant professor and co-ordinator of Asian American studies at California State University at Fullerton, and continues her research in her quest to raise awareness about the problem and find effective interventions. She is also writing a book on Asian American women’s suicides and depression.
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Photo by Kelly Lacefield