State of Mind Episode 3: To suffer in silence

"CBS Evening News Uncharted: State of Mind" is a new five-part digital series airing in May with new episodes released every Wednesday. The series will examine the state of mental health care in America in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Month. More than 43 million Americans suffer from mental illness.


Asian-Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services than whites.

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Dr. Kevin Nadal

CBS News

According to Dr. Kevin Nadal, president of the Asian American Psychological Association and professor at John Jay College in New York, many Asian-American families hold a "notion of shame and stigma" around mental illness and that "bringing shame to one's family can be especially detrimental to a person's mental health."

Sara, a 30-year-old Chinese-American who asked that CBS News not use her last name, is one example.

Sara spent much of her adolescence coping with depression and striving to meet her own high academic expectations.

Bullied in school and at home by her older sister, she says her upbringing did not allow her to talk to anyone about her emotional issues, silencing her into isolation and letting her problems fester.

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Sara

CBS News/Nia Stevens

She puts her family's struggle to talk about mental health down to the stigma surrounding mental health and illnesses within their community. "Honestly my dad doesn't even believe that I have a mental illness," she said.

In her eyes, reputation was one of the main factors for her family's unwillingness to speak openly about their emotions. But after various instances of bullying and school intervention, Sara's mother sought help for her daughter -- and family.

But in addition to her depression and bullying, Sara says that when she was 15 years old, she was molested by a relative during a family trip. She kept silent, and several months later, she says the relative touched her again while at the beach with family.

Sara claims that when she screamed for help, her family laughed it off -- assuming she was scared of sharks in the water. Sara says she didn't tell her family what happened until about six months later. But even after she convinced them she was telling the truth, she believes her parents still minimized her trauma.

Nadal says that the Asian-American community sometimes turns a "blind eye to things like sexual assault," domestic violence and child abuse because of shame or stigma.

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Sara

CBS News/Nia Stevens

One year later, Sara attempted suicide after she says a classmate sent her hurtful messages online. "I had very little self-esteem then," she said. "I know that even if she hadn't said anything that if that wasn't the time I would have tried to commit suicide eventually."

Following the first attempt, Sara had countless more suicide attempts and was in and out of hospitals as a result. "I hated my life, I hated myself," she said.

In her late teens, Sara was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. She was dealing with symptoms like hallucinations, auditory delusions, paranoia and depression all at once.

But with intense therapy and a search for the right medication, she began to get better.

Sara says her family believes her issues can be solved with vitamins and self-reflection. Social worker Thomas Michelena says that for many, "it's hard to see mental health problems as you would see something of a physical ailment." 

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Thomas Michelena, LMSW

CBS News

Even with the severe symptoms that come with schizoaffective disorder, her father still does not want her taking medication.

"Medication gave me my life back. If I didn't take medication I'd probably be dead," she said.

"I stopped hating myself so much and started forgiving myself, I started liking myself and not being so worried about what everyone thought of me."

For Sara, hope is what keeps her fighting to survive.

If you're having suicidal thoughts or know someone that is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK. For Asian language services from the Asian American Suicide Prevention and Education, call 1-877-990-8585.