A Harvard Suicide: Whose Responsibility?

Jenifer McKim writes on WGBH:

Nationwide, Asians between the ages of 18 and 24 die at lower rates of suicide than other youths their age, federal data shows. But at some elite schools, numbers are skewed.

Jenn Fang, who produces a blog focused on Asian issues called Reappropriate, first became concerned about the issue while studying at Cornell University. The school in 2006 published a report that found 13 of 21 students who died by suicide over 20 years were of Asian descent. She’s frustrated by the lack of good data about deaths on colleges nationwide.

“If we don’t understand how race influences the experiences on campus, resources will never be adequate,” she said.

After Luke’s death, a group of Harvard graduate students started a conference called “Let’s Talk’’ to raise awareness about mental health issues for Asians and Asian Americans. Luke’s brother Richard was invited the first year, and the second year the documentary was screened at the event.

Josephine Kim, a professor who specializes in mental health issues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says Asian students struggle with cultural perceptions — both from within and outside of their own communities — that they should be high performing and shouldn’t need help.

“You are supposed to be perfect,” she said. “And if you are so perfect, then it’s weird if you reach out for help.”

Adding to challenges, she said, is that when students do seek mental health services, they find themselves forced to explain their culture to health care staff. Of the 58 staff members at Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services, only two are Asian, according to Harvard officials.

Jenny Hsi, a graduate student at the Harvard School of Public Health, says students of color can find it a burden to explain themselves to white counselors.

“There’s a great sense that counseling and mental health services are for white people,’’ she said.

Harvard has been trying to hire more Asian counselors, said Barbara Lewis, chief of Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services. But they’ve had little luck recruiting.

American private schools and universities have an ethos to offer help, not to “push” help.  It’s a contrast to a charter school like mine, where the teachers sign up specifically expecting students to need-but-not-want-help, and to overcome those barriers.

So one side there are Asian students facing anxiety and depression, but culturally programmed not to ask for help, and to pretend all is perfect.

On the other side are helpers who are culturally programmed to offer help, but not to really “sell” it and aggressively get in there, build relationships proactively.

There’s a big space in the middle, with no help being provided.

Suicides provide the extreme examples of where help was needed.

Luke Tang was heading into the spring of freshman year at Harvard University in 2015 when he attempted to take his own life.

A skilled violinist and math whiz and the youngest son of Chinese immigrants, Tang survived the attempt and was whisked away to a psychiatric facility under Harvard’s purview. To return to his studies, school officials required that the 19-year-old sign a contract promising to follow his doctors’ treatment plan.

But Tang did not keep up with mental health services after going away for the summer. And Harvard officials apparently did not check up with him upon his return in the fall. About two weeks after arriving on campus, Tang killed himself in the basement of his college dormitory.

I think suicide should be seen as the extreme tail of a widespread problem, where a holistic solution might help.

Instead, the lawyers are pushing for aggressive action only in the case of suicide risk, which means schools will respond with very narrow solutions to protect themselves.

When challenged “merely” on the non-acute anxiety and isolation of many Chinese foreign students, for example, administrators tend to provide MORE of the same — more gentle offers of help, but no new instances of aggressively reaching out.  For example, a new “Peer Counselor” program might be added on top of what the professional clinicians offer, to address language and cultural barriers.  But the same dynamic applies – it’s just an offer to people who probably won’t accept the offer.

Why doesn’t “the market” solve this problem?

I spoke to several mainland Chinese whose kids have gone to American private schools and universities.  They are willing to spend on academic tutoring, but  reluctant to invest in services to help their child’s social and emotional needs.  You can ask what if “Your child has no friends” or “Your child seems really down” without getting a strong “I’d jump in!” type reaction.

This – isolation and anxiety – seems to me like the #1 issue facing Chinese students in the USA.