Asian immigrants report fewer mental health problems

Immigrants from Asia have lower rates of psychiatric disorders than American-born Asians and other native-born Americans, according to the first national epidemiological survey of Asian Americans in the United States.

The study showed different mental health patterns among women and men, with birthplace the key factor for women and English-language proficiency the main variable among men. Asian-American immigrant women were far less likely to suffer from a depressive, anxiety, substance abuse or psychiatric disorder in their lifetime than were U.S.-born women. Immigrant men who reported good or excellent English skills were less likely to have mental health problems than were those who had poorer English proficiency or American-born men.

“Compared to all Americans, Asian Americans had lower lifetime rates of any disorder,” said David Takeuchi, a sociologist and University of Washington social work professor and lead author of the study. “Roughly 48 percent of Americans will have some kind of a lifetime disorder. In our study, less than one in four Asian-American immigrants will have a disorder. However, that won’t necessarily be the case for their children and grandchildren. If trends continue, rates for them will go up and that suggests that more investment is needed for prevention programs.”

The study is part of a special section published in the current issue of the American Journal of Public Health. Other papers in the journal look at the mental health of Latino and Black Caribbean immigrants to the United States. In general, all of the papers suggest that immigrants have lower rates of mental disorders than native-born Americans.

Data from the Asian-American paper was drawn from the larger National Latino and Asian American Study. For this paper, the researchers interviewed nearly 2,100 native-born or immigrant Asian Americans who were 18 or older. Participants included 600 Chinese, 520 Vietnamese, 508 Filipinos and 467 other Asians including Japanese, Koreans and Asian Indians.

The researchers used a questionnaire designed by the World Health Organization to find out about incidents in the past year and lifetime of depression, anxiety, phobias, post traumatic stress disorder, substance and alcohol abuse and eating disorders. The questionnaire was available in six languages, although nearly three-quarters of the interviews were conducted in English.

The study also found that:

  • There were no significant differences among the main immigrant groups, the Chinese, Filipinos and Vietnamese.
  • Asian immigrants who came as elementary school-age children have an easier time learning English than older children, but are more at risk to develop a substance abuse problem.
  • American-born women are twice as likely to have a depressive disorder than Asian-born women.
  • Among men, those born elsewhere are less likely to have a substance abuse problem than Asian-American men born in the United States.

The study also raised a number of questions that Takeuchi said the researchers want to look at in the future. He said they would like compare the circumstances of immigrants who voluntarily migrate and those who are refugees.

“Someone who is a voluntary immigrant doesn’t typically suffer the severe trauma that a refugee who is fleeing persecution or war does.” And because social relationships can enhance or deter social mobility, the researchers also want to examine how discrimination is associated with mental health among Asian Americans.

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Co-authors of the study are Seungye Hong and Emily Walton of the UW; David Chae of the UW and Harvard University; Nolan Zane and Stanley Sue of the University of California, Davis; Fang Gong of Indian University; Gilbert Gee of the University of Michigan and Margarita Alegria of the Cambridge Health Alliance and Harvard.

The National Institute of Mental Health, the Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research at the National Institutes of Health and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration funded the research.

For more information, contact Takeuchi at (206) 543-5133 or dt5@u.washington.edu


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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