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KFAM Newsletter

By: Elizabeth Clark Rubio

Research institutes dedicated to studying mental illness in the United States consistently state that amongst all minorities, Asian Americans are the least likely to seek help from a mental health professional. In a 2010 study, The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) found that while African Americans and Hispanic Americans used mental health services at about one-half the rate of white Americans, Asian Americans only took advantage of those services at about one-third the rate[i]. The findings of a 2008-2012 National Alliance on Mental Illness survey were even more alarming – while 21.5% of white American women and 11.5% of white American men who participated in the survey sought help from a mental health professional, only 5.3% of Asian American women and 4.4% of Asian American men surveyed sought support[ii].

Approximately 13.9% of Asian American adults report living with a mental health condition[iii]. Yet due to certain stigmas that surround mental health in many Asian American families, this statistic most likely underestimates the actual number of Asian Americans living with a mental illness. As an anthropologist whose work focuses on challenging cultural and racialized essentialisms, I am often wary of attributing simplified characteristics to entire groups of people. Attitudes about mental health differ across generation, nationality, gender and class and we should refrain from thinking about “Asian” or “Asian American cultures” as monolithic and unchanging entities. However, scholars and mental health professionals alike suggest that certain patterns characterize the attitudes that many Asian and Asian American families hold towards those who suffer from and/or seek outside help for mental illness. These attitudes include viewing mental illness as a sign of weakness or lack of willpower, believing that mental health issues bring shame on the family and are best kept private, and rejecting the medical model of depression that understands depression as a disease that requires medical intervention. Prevalence of the reluctance to report mental health issues amongst Asian Americans is supported by statistical data. The 2001 Mental Health Supplement to the Surgeon General’s Report indicated that only 12% of Asian Americans, compared to 25% of white Americans would reveal mental illness to a friend or family member.

As is the case with many statistical analyses about Asian Americans in the United States, data about mental illness is not sufficiently disaggregated across nationalities. The data that does exist to highlight mental health issues specifically among Korean Americans however, suggests a worrisome prevalence of depression and other mental illnesses, as well as an attendant reluctance to seek support from a mental health professional. Through the employment of standardized depression and anxiety measurement tools to analyze the depression level of a representative sample of Korean Americans, a group of mental health professionals demonstrated that 40% of the younger adult sample, and 35% of the older adult sample indicated some form of depression. The analogous rates for white and African Americans was 9% and 16% respectively. The same group of researchers found that of the younger Korean American adults in their sample, only 7.5% reported any contact with a mental health professional. Only 6.5% of older Korean American adults reported having received attention from a mental health professional[i]. Research on Korean American attitudes towards the reporting of domestic violence are also troubling. A study on Chinese, Cambodian, South Asian and Vietnamese communities in Massachusetts sponsored by the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence found that 30% of Korean American respondents indicated that the best option for survivors of domestic violence is to keep the fact of their abuse to themselves[ii].

The Prevention and Early Intervention (PEI) and Integrated Care Programs (ICP) at KFAM are working to address disparities in Korean American access to mental health care as well as attitudes about mental illness. The PEI program provides preventative counseling for clients who are 18 years or older, have Medi-Cal and have experienced a traumatic life event. Since 2012, KFAM’s Integrated Care Programs have been providing support to Koreans and individuals of Korean descent in Los Angeles, aged 26-59 years and who are suffering with a mental health, substance abuse or physical health condition. The ICP services are open to anyone regardless of immigration status or access to health insurance. Those who feel that they can benefit from either of these programs are encouraged to call KFAM’s bilingual Korean-English line at (213) 235-4857.


[i] Jang, Yuri, Chiriboga, David A., and Sumie Okazaki. “Attitudes Toward Mental Health Services: Age-Group Differences in Korean American Adults”. Aging Mental Health, 13, no. 1 (2009): 127-134.
[ii] Asian Family Violence Report: A Study of Chinese, Cambodian, South Asian Korean and Vietnamese Communities in Massachusetts. Conducted by Asian American Task Force Against Domestic Violence, Inc. Available at https://www.atask.org/site/images/pdf/asianfamilyviolencereport.pdf.
[i] 2010 National Healthcare Disparities Report, 2010. Conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Available at http://www.ahrq.gov/research/findings/nhqrdr/nhdr10/index.html.#sthash.jZuSPIYf.dpuf.
[ii]National Alliance on Mental Illness Multicultural Mental Health Fact Sheet. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Available at https://www.nami.org/NAMI/media/NAMI-Media/Infographics/MulticulturalMHFacts10-23-15.pdf
[iii] Ibid.


Celebrating Korean Heritage: Dol-Jan-Chi  (1st Birthday) 

The doljanchi is a traditional Korean ceremony that celebrates a baby’s first birthday. The ceremony, full of rich symbolism that represents various aspects of Korean heritage, is designed to bless the baby with a prosperous future. Every component of the doljanchi – from the food served, to the clothing worn by the baby – carries a specific symbolic meeting. In what follows, I will take you through various aspects of the celebration as a way to explore an important feature of Korean and Korean American culture in honor of Asian American/ Pacific Islander heritage month.

Prayer to Sanshin and Samshin Halmeoni: On the evening before the party, or early in the morning before guests arrive, the baby’s mother and gradmother thanks to the sanshin and samshin halmeoni. The sanshin, or mountain god and the samshin halmeoni, the birth god, will watch over the baby as (s)he grows up. The baby’s mother and grandmother kneel in front of a table set with seaweed soup, plain rice and pure drinking water that are meant as a divine sacrifice. The mother and grandmother rub their hands together in a circular motion to ask for the gods’ protection. The seaweed soup symbolizes the pain that the mother endured in giving birth to the baby and it is served on every birthday as a reminder of the mother’s sacrifice. The women also place next to the table samshin siru (layered red bean rice cake), which they enjoy only with immediate family members, as it is believed that sharing the rice cake with people outside the family would bring bad luck to the child.

Food: The Dol Table: The centerpiece of the party is the “dol” table, a lowset banquet table overflowing with food to symbolize a life of prosperity. The table features baskets of fruits, jujubes and towers of rice cakes (tteok) as well as a large multicolored and multilayered mujigae tteok, or rainbow rice cake. Noodles and thread represent a long life while each kind of rice cake has a specific meaning. For example:


Paekseolgi (steamed white rice cakes) – Represent longevity and a pure spirit

Susu-kyongdan (rice cakes coated with red bean power) – Wards of evil spirits so that the children will have a healthy development

Injulmi (sticky rice cakes) – Will fill the child with strength and tenacity.

Clothing: Both boys and girls wear hanbok, traditional Korean dress. They also wear a traditional hat – the jobawi for girls and the bokgeon for boys.


The Doljabi: The highlight of the party is unquestionably the doljabi, or the ceremony designed to predict the baby’s future. The baby’s parents set the baby in front of a tray of items that represent a variety of future outcomes regarding the baby’s profession, longevity and prosperity. The first two items that the baby chooses predict the trajectory of the baby’s life. The items from which the baby can choose vary, but here is a list of the most common items:


Stethoscope: The baby will become a doctor

Gavel: The baby will become a lawyer or judge

Computer Mouse: The baby will pursue a career in technology

Pen/Paper/ Calligraphy Scroll: The baby will become a scholar

Money (bills or coins): The baby will be rich

Spools of thread: The baby will lead a prosperous life

Tennis/ Golf ball: The baby will be an athlete

Microphone: The baby will become an entertainer.


While family members are usually content with whatever items the baby chooses, in my experience, the baby’s halmoni usually tries to steer the baby in the direction of the money!



Past Newsletters

2017 February Newsletter – Teen Dating Violence