Disconnected Southeast Asian Youth, Mental Health, and the Model Minority Myth

Charmaine Runes

By 2020, about a third of all jobs in the United States will require at least a bachelor’s degree; two-thirds will require at least some college education. Youth who lack postsecondary credentials and work experience are more likely to have low unemployment prospects. In response to the increased demand for an educated workforce, we have seen a renewed commitment to programs and policies that try to empower young people of color, especially those who are disconnected from both education and employment. But are Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) youth included in those conversations?

If we look at the percent of youth who were neither in school nor at work by race, in 2012, AAPIs were at 8 percent, lower than the national average across all races of 14 percent, and significantly lower than the rates of other communities of color. 2015 saw 54 percent of Asian American adults 25 years and older holding a bachelor’s degree or higher, making them the most educated racial group in the United States.

But reporting rates only in aggregate masks the diversity and disparities within the AAPI community. It can perpetuate the model minority myth, misrepresenting the degree to which Asian Americans achieve better labor market outcomes due to their inherently high motivation and hard work. It renders those whose outcomes don’t fit the stereotype invisible, leaving them particularly vulnerable. Separate the statistics by ethnic group and we see a much different picture. The percentage of youth who are not formally involved in education or employment in some Southeast Asian communities is higher than the AAPIs in aggregate, and even higher than the average of all races.

Southeast Asian American youth often come from families fleeing war, disaster, and persecution; resulting mental health problems are not uncommon. Youth from Southeast Asian families are also more likely to be living under the federal poverty line than their East Asian peers. In 2012, 40 percent of the Burmese community and almost a third of the Hmong community was living under the federal poverty line. On top of living with poverty and first- or second-hand post-traumatic stress, many Southeast Asian American youth experience severe intergenerational and intercultural conflict. While research on their particular experiences of hardship and resilience is limited, some studies have found that Southeast Asian American youth are more likely to be involved in a gang, struggle in school, experience depression, and consider suicide.

The evidence behind unemployment and worsening mental health rightfully draws attention to workforce development programs and mental health interventions. If we want to equip our youth and work towards a more equitable future, we need to understand the range of experiences that AAPIs come from. The high rates of disconnected Southeast Asian American youth and existing studies on their mental health illustrate the urgency of including disaggregated data on AAPI youth in policy and program research – because in research, representation matters.

(Why an infographic?)

I decided to frame this research in an infographic because I wanted to make it more accessible. It is not as comprehensive as an academic paper or report because it’s not meant to be. Effective infographics combine data analysis and graphic design to tell powerful stories with visual appeal. The goal is to point out broad themes, provoke questions, and leave people with a narrative.