On Saturday morning, I stumbled upon a widely circulating New York Times news analysis called “Push, Don’t Crush, the Students.” In this piece, Matt Richtel discussed the three suicides of students in the Palo Alto Unified School District this year and whether the culture of hyperachievement in the city – home of Stanford University, in the heart of Silicon Valley, one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country – was a contributing factor in these deaths. As someone who’s spent a lot of time thinking and writing about cultures of achievement and their consequences, I appreciated the article; I found Richtel’s research thorough and enlightening, and his exploration of the mixed messages that parents and administrators send to students was compelling. The themes were all familiar to me, though, so when I finished the piece, I sighed, closed my browser, and went about my day.
That afternoon, I worked at a coffee shop alongside a friend of mine who lives in Palo Alto. Out of the blue, he mentioned the suicides – and that all three of these students were Asian American.
I felt as though I had been punched in the gut. Nowhere in his piece had Richtel mentioned this critical piece of information.
Obviously, the fact that these students were Asian American isn’t the most important part of these stories. But neglecting this data means that Richtel’s analysis is incomplete. In failing to acknowledge that the victims were Asian American, Richtel missed the many cultural factors that may have contributed to these deaths: that admitting personal problems is generally taboo in Asian cultures, which tend to value saving face; that in light of these values, mental health treatment tends to be highly stigmatized in Asian American communities; that Asian teenagers who are immigrants and children of immigrants often feel a special burden to achieve in order to validate their parents’ sacrifices in coming to this country; and on and on and on. While Richtel’s efforts to understand the problem are commendable, his failure to recognize these cultural components suggests only a partial understanding of what caused these tragedies – a partial understanding that he then passed on to his readers.
In his defense, Richtel wasn’t alone in omitting this information; it was absent in all of the news releases I saw. It’s scarcely even mentioned in this piece about PAUSD’s recent efforts to increase mental health outreach to Asian American families; the author noted the suicides only in passing and never explicitly acknowledged that any of the victims were Asian American. I was left to wonder why so many journalists had chosen to leave out this crucial detail. After talking with my Palo Alto friend and a colleague who teaches at a similarly competitive high school, I have only a few potential explanations, some well-intended and some maybe less so:
- These journalists worried that readers would start to make generalizations about Asian families and overbearing tiger mothers and the like.
- The journalists who aren’t Asian American feared being pegged as racist if they pointed out this pattern.
- These journalists recognized that most of their audience isn’t Asian American and feared that if they identified the students as such, some of their readers would assume that this wasn’t their problem and stop reading.
- These journalists weren’t thorough in their research and weren’t aware of this fact.
I can appreciate the well-meaning journalist who doesn’t want readers to pathologize Asian American communities or who wants all of their readers, not just the ones who are Asian American, to take the issue of suicide seriously. But I wonder if the cost of not including this information outweighs the benefit.
First of all, no one lives in a vacuum – and none of these students did, either. We’re all impacted by our cultures of origin in one way or another, whether or not we’re aware of it, and the likelihood that cultural factors weren’t an issue in any of these suicides is slim to none. We can’t know or understand these students without knowing their racial and ethnic backgrounds, nor can we even begin to understand the myriad factors that contributed to their deaths without this information.
Second, the fact that these journalists don’t identify these students as Asian American means that Asian American readers don’t know how seriously they should be taking this issue. Given that admitting personal problems is frowned upon in Asian cultures, there’s very little discussion of mental health issues in Asian American communities. When Asian Americans are depressed, anxious, or suicidal, they almost always suffer and/or seek treatment in secret. Thus, many Asians and Asian Americans have no idea how prevalent these issues are in their own communities; I’ve interacted with many who think of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, suicidality, and the like as white or Western problems, simply because they don’t know anyone in their community who’s admitted to having them. And when the media also hides the fact that the suicide victims were Asian American, these folks remain in the dark about the fact that suicide is a real issue for us. So in spite of any possible good intentions, the journalists’ failure to identify the victims as Asian American is potentially harmful to our communities, because it helps perpetuate the myth that suicide isn’t something we struggle with.
And the numbers suggest that it is: Suicide is the second leading cause of death in Asian Americans ages 15-34. Though Asian Americans do not have a higher rate of suicide than other racial groups, Asian American college students think about and attempt suicide more often than their white peers. There have been a staggering number of Asian American college student suicides in the last 15 years, from Elizabeth Shin in 2000 to the three students who died by suicide in April 2014 alone. This is a real issue for Asian American communities, and I’m not convinced that Richtel and his fellow journalists are being helpful when they leave out that information.
The shooting of Michael Brown cannot be fully understood without knowing his race and that of his killer. The suicide of Leelah Alcorn cannot be fully understood without knowing her gender identity. In the same way, the recent suicides in Palo Alto cannot be fully understood without knowing that the students were Asian American. Journalists may mean well when they omit this information, but in the process, they do a disservice to their readers, who are left with an incomplete understanding of what may have led to these tragedies – and those who should be taking the news the most seriously are left unaware of how much they need to be listening.
If you are thinking about suicide, you are not alone. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), which is available 24 hours a day. If you feel that you are in immediate danger of hurting yourself, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.