Chinese Canadian Comp Sci Prof. asks students to write a program: “Will a rape victim commit suicide?”

Dr. Shieh with a graduate student.
Dr. Shieh (left) with a graduate student.

Dr. John S. Shieh, a computer science professor at Newfoundland’s Memorial University, is in hot water after asking his student’s to write an algorithm that determines whether or not a rape victim will kill herself after cyber-bullying. Here is an image of the exam question from Jezebel:

An image of the exam question.
An image of the exam question.

Giving Shieh the benefit of a doubt, perhaps this was a ripped-from-the-headlines effort by the professor to engage his students in contemporary social issues. Giving Shieh the benefit of a doubt, perhaps this was an effort to show how programming concepts can be broadly applied to the real world.

Yeah, no. It’s not.

Continue reading “Chinese Canadian Comp Sci Prof. asks students to write a program: “Will a rape victim commit suicide?””

Register NOW for ITASA 2014 East – includes a workshop run by me!

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ITASA (Intercollegiate Taiwanese American Students Association) 2014 (East) is happening in just 3 short weeks at Yale University, and I’m honoured and privileged to have been invited to conduct a workshop on one of my passions: mental health awareness in the Asian American community.

ITASA is a fabulous conference for Asian American college students that is unique in offering a Taiwanese American focus. I had the opportunity to participate in it when it was first being launched back in my undergraduate days; I’m excited to once again be involved in making it happen.

This year, ITASA’s organizers have built a truly astounding program focused on community activism and involvement. Not only have they put together some great seminar topics, but the program is augmented with hands-on interactive workshops. There will also be fun chances to socialize; two words: speed dating!

So, if you’re interested in attending this awesome conference, please check out this (kick-ass) conference website and register: eastcoast.itasa.orgRegistration closes Sunday. Be there (and meet me), or be square!

Also, check out ITASA 2014 East on Facebook and Twitter!

Hyphen Magazine: Lying to your mom about Post-partum Depression

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Sharline Chiang of Hyphen Magazine is a survivor of post-partum depression. Yesterday, she wrote a powerful article today about the months following the birth of her daughter, in which she discusses the depression. More importantly, she writes about why she — like so many Asian Americans battling depression and related mood disorders — carry their struggle in silence:

I wanted to say: I’m not okay, Mom. I’m so tired it hurts. I feel like I’m being electrocuted in a tub of ice water. I sweat. I shake. I have panic attacks. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m so scared.

I didn’t know I had postpartum depression—postpartum anxiety to be exact. Even after I found out and was diagnosed with severe PPD a month later, I lied. Even after I was put on anti-psychotic medicine, even after I was registered at the mental hospital in Berkeley, I lied. I lied, because I didn’t want my parents to worry. It seemed the right, Confucian, filial thing to do, to protect one’s elderly parents from one’s own suffering. Most of all I lied because I didn’t want to be judged. I already felt like such a failure. I was failing as a mother and I was ashamed.

[…]

I lied because even though depression is so common in Asian American communities, we rarely talked about it. The message I grew up with: your mental struggles are our own; it’s up to you to find the inner strength to “ren,” to endure.

The character for “ren” ? is the character for “knife” over the “heart.” Endure even when there’s a knife in your heart.

Sharline talks about the very real differences between Asian and White cultures in talking about mental illness. She talks about how among Asian Americans (as arguably with many minority communities) there is profound shame not only with the label of “depression” but even in the simple act of talking about one’s feelings. She alludes to the fact that depression, like all mental health concerns, are viewed as a sign of personal “weakness” — one that can be cured by “toughening up” — rather than as a biological ailment. She confesses to the acute pain — physical and emotional — of her depression, and the embarrassment she felt in even recognizing there might be a problem. Above all, she confesses that even now, on a regimen of anti-depressants that seem to be helping, she hasn’t admitted her struggle to her family; importantly, Sharline is more comfortable talking to us, the Internet stranger, than she is telling her mother.

I get why Sharline lies. I get it, fundamentally and almost without the need for explanation. By contrast, Sharline’s White spouse can’t grasp Sharline’s hesitance: a problem that speaks to the cultural disconnect between White vs non-White communities in how depression is perceived and treated. This disconnect also speaks to the need for culturally-specific resources for minority patients battling depression.

Continue reading “Hyphen Magazine: Lying to your mom about Post-partum Depression”

Struggling in Silence: a discussion at Yale on APIA mental health

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It has been exactly a decade since I’ve been an undergraduate student at Cornell, and involved in that exciting thing that is student activism. It’s been a year since I’ve brainstormed workshop ideas; designed posters; chalked the sidewalks; and engaged my fellow student with ideas and dialogue.

In that intervening decade, I’ve done a lot of growing up and had a lot of fabulous experiences. But nothing — nothing — replaces the energy and excitement of being on-campus and listening to students engage on another with ideas about themselves and the world around them. In some ways, I blog in part to stay connected to the kind of enthusiasm that comes naturally to undergraduate students: that zeal that wants to learn more about the world around us, and the optimism that this world can be made even just a little bit better.

Tonight, I was invited by Yale’s Asian American Cultural Center to lead a discussion on issues of mental health, depression and suicide in the Asian American community. A difficult subject, no doubt, but one that has been close to my heart for about as long as I’ve been involved in Asian American activism.

And, it was incredible. The room was filled to capacity with students, each breaking the stigma that would have us stay silent about depression within our community, and each instead opening up to share their own stories, thoughts, and ideas about this critical issue within our community.

I might have been there to lead the discussion, but it was amazing to listen to and learn from everyone who came and engaged in the dialogue, each with their unique perspectives on this important topic. Being able to participate in this kind of a forum has been re-energizing for me, and gives me hope that we are one step closer to destigmatizing this community-wide struggle.

So, I just wanted to say thanks to everyone who organized this event, and who came out and participated. It has been truly a privilege to be a part of this event.

Related: Mental Health Awareness Week: Top 10 Myths about Asian Americans and Mental Health

Mental Health Awareness Week: Top 10 Myths about Asian Americans and Mental Health

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In 1990, Congress declared the first week of October to be Mental Health Awareness Week; today marks the final day of Mental Health Awareness Week 2013. In honour of this week, here are the top 10 myths about Asian Americans and mental health that remain pervasive in our community.

1. Mental health isn’t an Asian American issue.

In several studies that specifically examine the incidence of suicide among Asian Americans have found a far greater incidence among Asian Americans than many other ethnic groups. Most notably, Asian American women at multiple ages have higher suicide rates than the national average. In particular, both elderly Asian American women (>65) and men (>85) have the highest  suicide rates compared to non-Asians. Suicide is the 8th leading cause of death for Asian Americans, (compared to 11th for the national population). These data strongly suggest a specific and under-addressed disparity in mental health awareness and treatment in the Asian American community.

2. Depression and mental illness is rare in the Asian American community.

Few studies have specifically examined the incidence of depression in the Asian American community, and those that have show some conflicting results, but in analysis of the National Latino and Asian American Survey, depression-related symptoms is reported in approximately 10% of Asian Americans. 15.9% of young Asian American women report suicidal thoughts (which is comparable to the national average).

3. Alternatively, Asian/Asian Americans are more biologically or culturally prone to depression, which explains the high rates of suicide.

Despite some studies showing higher rates of depression in Asian Americans compared to Whites, the NLAAS concluded that rates of depression and related symptoms are similar to, or lower than, that of other ethnic groups (for a full review, see here). Yet, in a separate study .(also reviewed in the link provided), US-born Asian Americans also report far higher rates of depression (~22%) compared to foreign-born Asians Americans (~8%), indicating that genetic/biological factors are unlikely to blame: instead, these data combined with the higher incidence of suicide among Asian Americans suggest a disparity in Asian Americans seeking out or receiving appropriate treatment for mental health concerns

4. The early signs of clinical depression are obvious.

Depression can affect everyone differently — some people feel unmotivated and lethargic, while others become angry and aggressive. Some sleep all the time while others have difficulty falling asleep. Sometimes, the early signs of depression aren’t obvious, but there are a few common warning signs:

  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. A bleak outlook—nothing will ever get better and there’s nothing you can do to improve your situation.
  • Loss of interest in daily activities. No interest in former hobbies, pastimes, social activities, or sex. You’ve lost your ability to feel joy and pleasure.
  • Appetite or weight changes. Significant weight loss or weight gain—a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month.
  • Sleep changes. Either insomnia, especially waking in the early hours of the morning, or oversleeping (also known as hypersomnia).
  • Anger or irritability. Feeling agitated, restless, or even violent. Your tolerance level is low, your temper short, and everything and everyone gets on your nerves.
  • Loss of energy. Feeling fatigued, sluggish, and physically drained. Your whole body may feel heavy, and even small tasks are exhausting or take longer to complete.
  • Self-loathing. Strong feelings of worthlessness or guilt. You harshly criticize yourself for perceived faults and mistakes.
  • Reckless behavior. You engage in escapist behavior such as substance abuse, compulsive gambling, reckless driving, or dangerous sports.
  • Concentration problems. Trouble focusing, making decisions, or remembering things.
  • Unexplained aches and pains. An increase in physical complaints such as headaches, back pain, aching muscles, and stomach pain.

5. Depression is a character weakness, and means there’s something wrong with me.

Scientists are at a consensus that chronic and/or clinical depression — while capable of being triggered by environmental stresses — are primarily a result of biological and/or genetic factors that predispose a patient to depression. Depression is a mental illness, but depressed people are no weaker than people battling cancer. People who battle mental illness are sick, not weak.

6. Fixing racism (or other social/cultural stresses) will cure our community’s mental health problems.

Environmental stressors can expose underlying depression, but do not alone cause depression. Depression is biological and genetic. While racism and stereotyping can contribute to the stress that might trigger a depressive episode in a patient, “fixing” racism — while a worthy mission — will not alone fix our community’s high incidence of depression and suicide, because they do not address either the underlying biological causes for depression or the cultural obstacles and stigmas that discourage patients from seeking treatment.

7. Asian Americans are equally as likely as other ethnic groups to report mental illness and depression.

Several studies document that Asian Americans are less than half as  likely than our non-Asian counterparts to report mental illness to their friends and/or to seek treatment. Specifically, only 2% of Asian Americans will mention symptoms of depression to their doctor, compared to the national average of 13%.

8. Mental illness is embarrassing, and I can treat my depression on my own.

Some symptoms of depression can sometimes be managed with lifestyle changes, including exercise, but it’s a myth to think that clinical depression can go largely undiagnosed or treated by a medical profession. Depression has biological components that are best treated through medical care, and on occasion and under appropriate medical supervision, anti-depressants.

9. My primary care physician is fully equipped to treat my depression.

Few primary care physicians are fully trained in depression and related spectrum disorders, and  although some symptoms can be managed with your primary care physician, primary care physicians may not be fully equipped to diagnose or treat more severe forms of depression. That being said, it is always better to discuss potential symptoms of depression with your doctor than to hide it — they can either help treat your depression if it is mild or refer you to a specialist if it is severe. So, talk to your doctor!

10. Other Asian Americans don’t/won’t understand me and my depression.

Check out Hyphen Magazine’s Ask an Asian American Suicide.

And, here are a few other resources for you if you are an Asian American who is, or thinks you might be, battling depression and/or other mental health concerns:

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, 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