Nearly a year after 13-year-old Emilie Olsen was found dead of an apparent suicide, her parents have filed a federal lawsuit against the Fairfield County school district in Ohio alleging that the school didn’t do enough to stop the bullying that led to Emilie’s death.
Emilie, who was adopted at the age of 9 months from China, grew up in Ohio where she faced bullying to severe that she suffered chronic depression and anxiety. The bullying included name-calling, physical abuse, and at least one incident where a girl reportedly followed Emilie into a bathroom with a razor and told her to kill herself. In addition, school bullies engaged in cyber-bullying; they created a social media account that subjected Emilie to slut-shaming and homophobic slurs.
One of the watershed moments in my development as an AANHPI race advocate happened at ECAASU in 2003. I was still a student activist, and president of my on-campus Asian American political group. That ECAASU was my first Asian American student conference, and my first real opportunity to interact with politically conscious Asian Americans outside of the gates of my Ivory Tower.
The only workshop I remember is the poorly attended workshop on AANHPI healthcare disparities I attended because mental health disparities were a growing issue on my campus. I emerged undeniably woken up.
An enduring problem for AANHPI racial discourse is the homogenizing effect that results from how the mainstream talks about us, and also from how some of us talk about ourselves. We paint the AANHPI identity with the broad brush of “sameness”, and in so doing we commit two unforgivable sins: 1) we universalize the narratives of East (and to a far lesser degree, South) Asian Americans as if they are wholly representative of the AANHPI identity; and 2) we shortchange the Southeast Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander members of our vibrant and diverse AANHPI community.
As evidence of this mainstream instinct towards AANHPI homogenization, we need look no further than Nicholas Kristof’s recent column in the New York Times, which patronizingly lauded Asian Americans as universally high-achieving. We also need look no further than the angst expressed by Governor Jerry Brown when he vetoed a widely popular California state bill that would have required sophisticated ethnic disaggregation of demographic data for AANHPI people. To date, most AANHPI racial data is aggregated during collection and analysis.
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.
In the wake of a smear campaign against Planned Parenthood — one of the nation’s largest healthcare service providers for women (as well as men and youth) — the Senate voted last night on a bill that would have prohibited federal funds from going to the organization. That bill received 53 yea votes to 46 nay votes, 7 short of the 60 needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster, effectively defeating the proposed measure.
This post was written with input and inspiration from Snoopy.
Yesterday, the New York Times profiled Kathryn DeWitt, a young University of Pennsylvania student whose battle with depression and her survival of a suicide attempt motivated DeWitt to become an on-campus mental health advocate. I do not write this post in an attempt to belittle DeWitt’s depression, or her mental health advocacy. Indeed, stories like DeWitt’s are necessary and inspirational, and telling them helps to pull back the veil of stigma and shame that still shrouds the topic of mental illness, depression, anxiety and suicide in university settings, or in the community at-large.
I applaud the New York Times for dedicating ample space to the topic of on-campus suicide by profiling Kathryn DeWitt, and in so doing helping to normalize mental health conversations.
But, in an article that comprehensively touched on so many topics relevant to student mental health — academic pressures, obsessive perfectionism, helicopter parenting, inadequate mental health resources, and elite universities’ damning readmission policies — how did the New York Times manage to so completely marginalize the Asian American community from the conversation?