Alum Returns with Wellness Message
Dr. Chen and two colleagues founded the Center three years ago to support the emotional health of students from non-Western cultural backgrounds who were developing anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts in disproportionate numbers. The founding physicians agreed that solving these problems required an emphasis on early recognition, education, and primary prevention. There’s a bit of “hypocrisy,” Dr. Chen admitted, in using the Harvard name to spread the message that parents should think at least as much about their children’s mental and emotional health as they do about their education. “We have fancy credentials, but that’s not why you should listen to us,” he advised. “We’re not here as experts. We hope to plant seeds of thought.”
TJ is the perfect place to share the message of cross-cultural emotional wellness. In her introduction, Shivani, whose Minds Matter Club organizes Mental Wellness Week and Stress Less, Laugh More Week at TJ, stated that in her opinion a lot of the anxiety felt by TJ students stems from “insecurity and comparing yourself with others.” To illustrate her point, she shared an anecdote from her sophomore year. When she told a friend that her junior year schedule included four AP classes, the friend responded, “Only four?”
Lu, who also spoke frankly at TJ’s Lunar New Year Celebration (see Lunar, this issue), explained that she initially approached her twins’ education as a typical Chinese parent, believing that her kids “must go to the best schools and get the best grades, win academic honors, and gain entrance into elite colleges.” Over time, she came to believe that in pursuit of this success, “we forget what’s best for our kids.” When we tell our kids “college is everything,” we are also telling them that we lack confidence in them and making it harder for them to develop the intrinsic motivation that they need for long-term success.
If TJ is the best place to share the message of cross-cultural wellness, then clearly there is no better spokesperson for that message than an Asian-American TJ alum who understands the educational demands and parental pressures of the typical TJ student. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” Dr. Chen began, describing his years at TJ. “Whether it was understanding the beauty of calculus, or that ‘aha’ moment in organic chemistry . . . or the joy of being totally, unapologetically nerdy and creative . . . Where else in the world does that happen?” He took a moment to thank several of his TJ teachers, all of whom had retired. But despite the tremendous opportunities, there was a downside. “High school was one of the most stressful times in my life,” the psychiatrist said, describing how the memories of all the anxiety – especially from junior year – came over him as he prepared his lecture. No matter how hard I worked, I had “the nagging suspicion that it was never enough.”
The 160 parents and students who filled the new building’s Hopper Commons on March 4th received plenty of food for thought in exchange for giving up their Saturday afternoon. Dr. Chen and several of his Center colleagues discussed different aspects of student emotional wellness, with a special emphasis on students who are the sons and daughters of Asian immigrants, but with applicability to all students and parents:
Rohit Chandra, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, warned that when immigrant parents apply the up-or-out template from their home countries it can create “an educational arms race” in high-achieving American suburbs. He suggested a helpful analogy for parents who tend to micromanage their children’s lives out of fear that they won’t fulfill expectations. First you have to find out “what kind of ‘plant’ your kid is,” he said. Then you give the child the ideal environment and nurturing for his or her needs and “let them grow at their own pace,” he urged.
Albert Yeung, MD, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a Center Co-founder, discussed how navigating cultural differences — such as the difference between Americans’ emphasis on individualism and Asians’ on conformity — can exacerbate stress.
Catherine Hwang, an Arlington County Gifted Resource Specialist who collaborated with the Center on the presentation, mentioned her “typical Korean” upbringing before describing a perfectionist personality and discussing how perfectionism can lead to mental health issues.
Dana Wang, MD, a clinical fellow in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, emphasized the importance of self-confidence in our everyday decision-making, pointing out that children who aren’t allowed to succeed – or fail – on their own can’t build the confidence they need to tackle new challenges.
Sukhmani Bal, a Boston University graduate student whose struggles with mental illness derailed her educational path more than once, said she is living proof that “you don’t have to do things right.” She urged kids who feel that their worth depends on obtaining a particular acceptance or degree to think of Van Gogh’s words: “If I’m worth something later then I’m worth something now.”
In addition to hearing from these and other interesting panelists, participants had an opportunity to chat with each other, ponder questions designed to probe their attitudes about success, failure, and parent-student relationships, and view all group members’ answers to the same questions. At the end of the forum, it was the panelists who answered participants’ questions. When a parent asked Dr. Chen whether he might hold a similar event directed primarily at students, he said it was a great idea. Stay tuned for more TJ outreach from this wise and sensitive alum on this critically important topic.