Saving Face- Mental Health in a Patriarchal Society
Let’s face it.
APIAs have a very bad record at managing mental health as a community. As a whole, we’d rather save face as opposed to admitting we have a mental illness. Mental illnesses are considered ‘weak’ and ‘shameful.’ This stigma continues to be pervasive in our community, preventing people from seeking help or finding support. We constantly rank high in illnesses such as depression, but we are also reported to rarely seek professional help. It’s an issue. So you can probably guess the apprehension I felt when I moved to Malaysia for a year where it is considerably more patriarchal and conservative.
At the beginning of my placement, I was struggling with my alopecia. At the same time, I was making connections with my community. One uncle brought me everywhere to meet the community and once he heard about my alopecia, he began to tell everyone and asked for advice. I couldn’t fathom why he was doing such a thing and I was so embarrassed. Who wants to tell strangers that they’re losing hair?
Several months later, this uncle became a sort of godfather to me and invited me to come to a doctor’s visit with him in Singapore. Perplexed, I decided to follow because I had nothing else to do and I could get a new passport stamp. Upon arriving to the hospital, I realized that we were going to visit the doctor because my godfather had experienced anxiety attacks the past year. Then, on the way back he told me his story. My godfather was a very busy man- he is president and chairman of multiple associations and organizations. Oftentimes, he puts his own wellbeing on the line for the community’s benefit. As you can tell, this can be extremely taxing. As a result, my godfather started having anxiety attacks. But instead of hiding it and acting like a typical patriarch, he began to ask everyone and try everything suggested. From doctors to Eastern medicine to Western practices, he ended up finding proper help in Singapore from a psychiatrist. He told me that there is no shame in trying to be healthy. There is no shame in being sick. We are only allotted so much time in this life and it would be a waste to spend it unhappily and unwell.
I was shocked. Not only had this pillar of the community- the very definition of a Chinese patriarch- actively made himself vulnerable and sought for help, but he also went to a whole other country to find proper treatment. This was absolutely fascinating to me. Him along with his wife, my godmother, continued to talk to me about their thoughts regarding mental health. They told me that if there is a solution, then why must you keep yourself suffering in silence? The world has changed, so have humans. In the past, we had different diseases and threats to contend with, and now for our current age, this is a new problem people face. As a result, we must adapt and treat it accordingly. There is no reason for shame. We all have problems and it helps no one if we leave them unsolved.
So there’s this man in this incredibly patriarchal society, espousing all the values of traditional Chinese families, the epitome of a community pillar, and he doesn’t see admitting to sickness as losing face. So why should we?