College of LAS « Illinois

Psychology

High Anxiety for Asian Americans

If standard mental health assessments are to be believed, Asian Americans are more troubled by social anxieties and in need of therapy than their white counterparts.

But research by LAS psychologists indicates that what appear as signals of distress simply may reflect a culturally adaptive sensitivity in social situations. Such a misreading could have implications for mental health assessment and treatment.

Their preliminary data indicate that Asian Americans report higher feelings of anxiety than their white counterparts on a widely used instrument of social phobia and anxiety. However, their perceptions about how normal or abnormal the symptoms of social anxiety were among persons of the same gender, age group, and ethnicity also were related to their social anxiety inventory scores.

Social phobia—marked by overwhelming dread or panic in anticipation of, or during, social situations—affects one in eight Americans and is the third most common mental disorder in the United States.

"The Asian Americans scored higher on the social phobia inventory," says Diya Kallivayalil, a doctoral student in psychology who co-authored the study with her faculty advisor, Sumie Okazaki. "However, we are beginning to understand that what appear to be social phobias and anxieties may be an expected, normal part of the cultural norm for Asian Americans." 

The issue is rising in importance as the Asian American population grows in the United States, Okazaki says. Census figures for 2000 showed 10.2 million Asian Americans, making up 3.6 percent of the population. Projections are that by 2020 there will be 20.2 million Asian Americans in the United States.

"Our findings raise questions about how we look at scores on widely used standardized measures," Okazaki says. "Currently, we don't have a very good way of separating cultural aspects of the distress that scores indicate. Are the results reflecting simply bias, or are we really looking at distress?"

Summer 2002