A New York-based Asian American group is calling for local government to boost mental health services for the community against a backdrop of rising suicide rates — especially among younger Asian Americans.

The Asian American Federation (AAF), a non-profit composed of 39 member agencies, issued a report on October 24 titled The State of Mental Health in New York City’s Asian Community.

The report noted that the issue goes largely unrecognized by public officials and stressed that the city’s 1.3-million-strong Asian community received only 0.2% of contract dollars doled out by the city’s Department of Health & Mental Hygiene from 2002-2014. The Asian community, despite being the fastest-growing group in a city of 8.5 million, is also said to have received only 1.4% of the city’s overall social services contract dollars in the same period.

“There has never been a pan-Asian mental health report on Asian New Yorkers,” AAF Executive Director Jo-Ann Yoo told Asia Times. She notes the organization previously reported on the high suicide rate among the city’s Asian seniors and problems involving Asian youth. But until now, “there’s been noting comprehensive that pulls the numbers together,” Yoo said.

The report said suicide was among the top 10 leading causes of death from 1997 to 2015 in the Asian American community, based on municipal statistics. The population includes South Asians, East Asians and Southeast Asians.

Public data also show that suicide is the second leading cause of death in New York State for Asian Americans aged 15-24 and the third leading cause for Asian Americans aged 10-14 and 25-34. Nationally, the suicide rate for Asians is said to have surged by 24% between 1999 and 2014.

Cultural stigma

The report noted that although a higher percentage of Asian American high school and college students say they’ve experienced depressive symptoms when compared to whites, Asian Americans are the least likely of all groups to report depression or to seek, or receive, medical help for it. This is attributed to factors such as cultural stigma, as well as linguistic, financial and other issues.

The Asian community in New York, the report said, generally needs to build awareness of mental health as a serious concern. It also urged the creation of local mental health services that are linguistically and culturally sensitive in serving Asian clientele. The AAF also called for expanded research into community mental health needs and boosting of public funds to increase access to these services.

One specific shortfall, according to the AAF, is an absence of specialists who can deal with such issues as gambling, alcohol and drug addiction from an Asian perspective.

The report is based on a series of roundtable and focus group discussions that the AAF conducted with over 20 Asian-led groups and mental health service providers in New York over the past year.

Long-standing issue

The AAF report is the latest in a long-standing campaign to get local officials to pay more attention to the mental health needs of Asian New Yorkers. The issue first drew public attention in the 1970s due to a high rate of suicides, especially among Chinese immigrant women, in Manhattan’s Chinatown. News stories about the victims, who often jumped from tenement windows into tourist-crowded streets below, undercut Chinatown’s image as a “model community,” as did an increasing number of shootings, at the time, involving Asian street gangs.

The need for community-based mental health and other services also surged as successive waves of immigrants from mainland China, South Asia and South Korea arrived and settled in outer boroughs such as Queens and Brooklyn.

Activists, however, contend that public attention and funding has never kept pace with actual community needs. “The Asian ethnicity data isn’t even being tracked by the NYC Department of Health & Mental Hygiene. We’re included under the ‘other’ category,” Yoo noted.

Doug Tsuruoka is editor-at-large of Asia Times