By Joriene Mercado
In a survey of San Diego public high school students, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that a striking 45.6% of Filipino-American female adolescents have thought about committing suicide, which was the highest rate among all ethnic groups in this study (Wolf, 1997). Data collected by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health showed that the depression rate was 13.6% among Filipino-American female adolescents, which is a higher rate than other Asian American adolescents (Kim & Chun, 2013). The literature lacks information on Filipino-American males. While it is clear that mental health issues disproportionately affect this population, there is an alarming dearth of information on why incidences of suicidal ideation and depression are so high.
Research suggests that this health disparity may be linked to the psychological phenomenon of colonial mentality. People who possess colonial mentality have a perception of ethnic or cultural inferiority that is a specific consequence of colonization. For Filipinos, this involves an automatic and uncritical rejection of anything Filipino and an automatic and uncritical preference for anything American or white. Studies show that Filipino-Americans who possess colonial mentality have poorer mental health.
I’ve been able to recognize my own colonial mentality growing up, particularly not being satisfied with my appearance and wishing I looked more white.
When I first learned about Philippine history during my sophomore year of college, I discovered that my negative self-perception was rooted out of colonialism in the Philippines.
And today I am still healing from the intergenerational trauma that affects Filipinos. We should collectively heal by learning about our history so we can better understand the source of mental health issues in our community.
Filipino-American psychologist E.J.R. David argues that it is critical for Filipinos to know and understand the catalysts of their colonized thoughts, attitudes, emotions, and behaviors. This entails learning about the tragic history of colonialism in the Philippines. Since colonial mentality and poor mental health are linked, Filipino-Americans can better understand their own mental health with knowledge of the history of colonialism in the Philippines.
My struggles with mental health and the impact of learning my people’s colonial history have inspired me to educate Filipino-American high school students about mental health and our collective history. Partnering with the Filipino Mental Health Initiative, a grassroots organization striving to improve the wellness of Filipinos in San Mateo County, we’ve developed workshops for our community that teach the history of colonization in the Philippines and how it relates to mental health and ethnic identity development. In addition to facilitating the workshops, we examined how participants’ perceptions of mental health and ethnic identity changed based on the use of a decolonization framework in the workshops.
Based on the findings from our workshop, students have an increased awareness about their heritage, ethnic identity, and mental health. Throughout the workshop, they reported feelings of inspiration and empowerment and found value in learning about their peers’ personal experiences and connection with the topic. Additionally, their attitudes towards colonization changed to being completely negative, and they drew connections between colonization and mental health and ethnic identity. These preliminary outcomes suggest that educators should consider the sociopolitical forces and structures that may influence the mental health of marginalized communities.
We must continue to learn and share our ethnic histories as a means of empowerment and healing.
I call upon community health initiatives to think critically about how our histories of oppression have influenced the wellness of our communities. How does teaching youth about their collective history impact their ethnic identity development and mental health? What will happen to our youth if they are not exposed to their collective history? I would have been much better off if I learned about my collective history when I was younger, and I believe all students deserve to learn about their collective histories.