When we were freshmen first entering Cornell, an older student told Snoopy in a dubious effort to introduce us to the realities of campus life, “expect that not everyone in your class is going to make it with you to graduation day.” By this, he meant to prepare us for the eventuality that someone we knew would die by suicide in the four years we would be students at Cornell.
To this day, my friend’s advice still strikes me as disturbing. It bothers me not necessarily because it was untrue — indeed, Cornell has a reputation (perhaps unfairly earned) of an abnormally high on-campus suicide rate, and his words did end up being prophetic for me — but because of the cavalier manner by which they were spoken. This senior student (whom I still count as a friend, by the way) issued this warning almost dismissively; as if he had become jaded on the topic of suicide; as if he believed some baseline rate of suicide deaths should be expected; as if he thought the on-campus suicide rate statistic should just be overlooked; as if he felt that losing a classmate by suicide should be unremarkable.
The loss of a person’s life should never be treated as unremarkable. Yet, too often, that is exactly the kind of treatment that Asian American student victims (as well as other student of colour victims) of suicide face in the mainstream coverage of the larger issue of on-campus suicide. Too often, the intersection of racial identity with on-campus mental health is overlooked, and so the many Asian American student victims (and other student of colour victims) of suicide are rendered invisible.
Last week, I wrote a post — “Why is the New York Times Rendering the Suicide Deaths of Asian American Students Invisible?” — responding to an article in the New York Times by former Times staff writer and current freelance writer Julie Scelfo. Scelfo’s story appeared two days earlier online and in-print and documented the experiences of a University of Pennsylvania student named Kathryn DeWitt and her experiences living with depression. Scelfo juxtaposed DeWitt’s trajectory with that of Madison Holleran, a University of Pennsylvania freshman who died by suicide in 2014. Scelfo’s piece set out to explore the stresses of campus life — high parental and self-imposed expectations, social isolation, academic pressures, questions regarding identity and sexuality — that might contribute to depression, anxiety, and in the most severe cases, suicidal ideation and attempts.
When I first read Scelfo’s piece, I appreciated its attempt to demystify mental illness in the university setting. But, I also chafed. Scelfo’s profile was comprehensive in many ways. However, its failure to mention the intersection of racial identity was baffling to me, particularly since racial disparities in on-campus depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation are well-documented in the literature. Racial identity isn’t just an extraneous detail in the conversation on on-campus suicide deaths; it is a central factor. Furthermore, Scelfo touches on several topics where Asian American identity seems like an important detail — the death of Luchang Wang at Yale earlier this year, the suicide cluster at Cornell University that disproportionately impacted Asian American students (see below) — yet she seems to go out of her way to avoid mentioning race in general, and Asian American students and victims in particular.
So, I wrote a post that filled in the blanks in Scelfo’s article on on-campus depression, anxiety and suicide, and it went kind of viral. I talked about how the issue of on-campus depression and suicide reveals an alarming disparity for universities’ Asian American student population — one that is understudied, underreported and underaddressed. I laid out the case as to why those who write about mental health should include conversations about race. This was an unintentionally timely post; just a week earlier, the White House had trended the hashtag #MMHM2015 to raise awareness about Minority Mental Health Month, and to encourage us all to confront race in our daily mental health discussions.
Scelfo eventually responded — first on Twitter and then in a column published yesterday and framed as though she is both interviewer and interviewee discussing the topic of her own writing. In it, Scelfo asks Scelfo why she didn’t talk about Asian American students in her first piece. Here is the relevant passage:
Q. Why didn’t you talk about high rates of suicide among Asian-American students?
A. While suicide among Asian-American students is a significant concern, data from the C.D.C. shows the racial/ethnic group with the highest suicide rate is actually American-Indian/Alaskan Native. According to the C.D.C, the rate of suicide in that group for 15 to 24-year-olds is 9.4 for females and a staggering 29.1 for males.
This — Scelfo’s doubling down on her earlier erasure of Asian American student victims of suicide — is galling. Scelfo’s appalling message is clear: because Asian Americans haven’t won the gold medal in the sport of mental illness in the Oppression Olympics, we don’t warrant any further discussion. Obviously, it’s impossible to talk about mental illnesses’ racial disparities in the context of more than one affected community of colour. Apparently, an insufficient number of Asian American youths have died for this reporter to care.
Where we might have dismissed Scelfo’s original writing and its rendering of race as invisible as mere ignorance, this brutish remark is deliberate erasure of Asian Americans, our issues, and our politics by seeking to pit us against the Native community.
Scelfo’s use of statistics also paint an incomplete picture. She is right that according to the CDC, suicide rates are highest for Native male and female youth, however it remains unclear how this reconciles with the much publicized work of Dr. Eliza Noh who reported in 2008 that Asian American women aged 15-24 had the highest suicide rate of any race or ethnicity — I suspect that Noh studied suicide deaths over Census years when suicide deaths by Native women were unavailable due to undersampling. But even if we accept that Noh’s data are now outdated (a position also adopted by the Asian American Psychological Association), the fact remains that even by updated CDC data AAPI women aged 15-24 are dying by suicide at a rate far in excess of women of almost any other race or ethnicity.
Of greater relevance to the specific topic of conversation is the on-campus setting. The Asian American Psychological Association helpfully notes that “there is no national data about [AAPI’s] rate of suicide deaths.” Such a meta-study is long overdue.
But, in the absence of such data, we needn’t fall back on CDC analyses of suicide rates disaggregated by age and race, which gives a very generalized (and possibly even inaccurate) picture of what’s happening on college campuses. For the most part, we don’t have a lot of direct evidence about high rates of suicide among Asian American students on college campuses. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a ton of circumstantial evidence. We know that Asian American college students, for example, are more likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to their White peers. We also know that Asian American college students are more likely to think about — and to attempt — suicide compared to their White peers. These findings point to the strong likelihood that suicide rate is significantly higher for Asian American students compared to non-Asian peers.
In isolated studies, we have found this to be true. Consider this: Cornell has documented that 11 of 20 student suicides between 1996 and 2003 resulted in the deaths of Asian American students. At a school where 14% of students were Asian American at the time of the study, 55% of suicide deaths involved Asian American students. It is misleading to shoehorn the suicide cluster at Cornell into one’s article about a colour-blind discussion of on-campus mental health, particularly if by doing so one deliberately chooses not to note that cluster’s essential racial context.
A similar pattern of disproportionately high suicide rates among Asian American students is likely to be observed at other colleges and universities. I found recently that 42% of suicide deaths at MIT involved Asian American students. Only 24% of MIT’s students are Asian. Between 2012-2014, at least four students died by suicide at Harvard University according to a quick perusal of the Harvard Crimson‘s archives; three out of those four that I could identify — or 75% — involved the suicide deaths of Asian American students (and importantly, the fourth death involved a Black male student, meaning that all four were students of colour). Only 21% of Harvard’s students are Asian.
Every day, I am shocked that these statistics are deemed simply unremarkable by those who would claim to write with authority about on-campus depression, anxiety and suicide. The deaths of Asian Americans are not unremarkable.
Yet, it seems that most people — whether Times journalists or university administrators — have a selective blind spot when it comes to acknowledging the full impact of mental health issues in the Asian American community. In response to the apparently high suicide rate for Asian American students, Cornell brought together the Asian and Asian American Task Force (3ATF), which released an essential report in 2004 on the racialized experiences of Asian American students and how these compounded stressors can influence mental health. (Yes, that’s me acknowledged on the first page.) Writes 3ATF (emphasis added):
In direct contrast to the stereotype driven behaviors, studies show that Asian American college students are not immune to mental health difficulties and often show increased risk of depression and anxiety, especially among the newly arrived or foreign-born (Chen, 1999; Chun, Eastman, Wang & Sue, 1998). However, there is evidence that Asians’ and Asian Americans’ levels of distress tend to be underestimated by others to a greater degree than white Americans, especially if the rater was white, suggesting an interpretive bias possibly based on ethnic stereotypes (Okazaki, 2002).
Put more simply: studies show that in general non-Asians are more likely to downplay — or outright reject — the significant impact of mental illness for Asian Americans, and they do so based almost entirely on internalized stereotypes.
3ATF ultimately concluded that the experiences of Asian American students is significantly different than that of non-Asian students, coloured at least in part by manifestations of the Model Minority Myth and other stereotypes. Consequently, treating on-campus depression and anxiety as a colourblind issue leaves Asian American students with resources that may be inadequate for addressing their specific stressors and mental health needs; 3ATF argued forcefully that a new paradigm — one that directly confronts race — were needed for on-campus mental health conversations. This is exactly what Scelfo fails to do when she writes about on-campus suicide in the absence of race, and this is what she fails to do again — and with greater abandon — when she dismisses the Asian American community as unremarkable because we are ‘runners-up in the mental illness race’.
Scelfo writes in her interview of herself that she wanted to write about DeWitt and Holleran at University of Pennsylvania because she felt the story was a “rare opportunity”, suggesting she felt her coverage of it offered something unique and unheard.
Yet, a Google search of Madison Holleran’s name retrieves over 300 news stories. By contrast, only 31 stories have been written about Luchang Wang, the Yale student who died by suicide earlier this year. Only 25 stories have been written about Andrew Sun, who died by suicide at Harvard last year. Only 3 stories have been written about Wendy Shung, the University of Pennsylvania student who died in the same suicide cluster as Holleran. Only a single story was written about the death of Joanna Li, a Harvard student who died by suicide in 2013. If one were looking to write a rare story, it would be the story of any one of these Asian American students. If one were seeking to profile Asian American students fighting back against on-campus stress and depression, social media abounds with Asian American students who are already tackling this subject and who might be interesting to profile.
I earnestly don’t begrudge Scelfo’s choice to write about Kathryn DeWitt or Madison Holleran; her writing remains necessary. My only wish is that the Times would stop erasing Asian American student victims of suicide in our nation’s universities, whether in Scelfo’s original piece or in her insensitive follow-up. Instead, I desperately hope that the Times might be motivated to dedicate their next 3,000 word “immersive story” to telling a more complete tale of on-campus mental health: one that actually tells — rather than dismisses — the uniquely racialized stories of students of colour living with depression and anxiety every single day, and who are fighting desperately to be heard too.
If you or someone you know may be depressed or struggling with any other mental health concern, please check out these resources:
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call:
- 1-800-273-8255 (TALK), 24hr National Suicide Prevention Hotline, >150 languages available
- 1-877-990-8585, 24hr Asian LifeNet Hotline, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Fujianese available
If you believe that you or your friend is in immediate physical danger, call 911 and do not allow the person to remain unaccompanied as long as it is safe to stay. As soon as it appears safe, you can also bring that person to the hospital for additional care.
Update (11/30/2020): This post was updated to correct a broken link.