Asian American Religion and Depression, Killing the Hope of Our Youth?

Asian American Religion and Depression, Killing the Hope of Our Youth? December 30, 2011

     In the Christmas season when lots of joy and cheer abound, we know that this sentiment is not always shared by those around us. I’m not talking about those who don’t believe in Santa or those who don’t believe in Jesus. I’m talking about those among us who fight the noonday demon called depression. A lot of us who skim this blog already know this: suicide attempts and depression run higher in these winter months and a number of theories have been kicked around to explain what’s going on. For sociologists, suicide and depression are matters of context: people who are disconnected, who feel like they don’t have a community feel especially ill at ease during this time when they feel set apart from those around them that are involved in a group.

     This is of particular importance and interest to me because I discovered that one of my former students, a bright young African American woman, took her life in graduate school, and because I have noticed a few reports recently of well noted young Asian Americans (all Korean I might add) who have also taken their lives in the past few months. What were their lives like that they should feel terminating it was better than getting help? If I sit and think about it too long I can only conclude that sometimes some people will do what they will do regardless of what we may know about their circumstances. But to the extent that we can identify possible patterns of distress and possible solutions for alleviating that distress, social science will remain an important field of study with direct applications for our nation and our local communities.

           Readers of this blog also probably know intuitively that Christian churches are one way in which “groupness” can help people fight off the winter blues or however they describe it. Interestingly, the research (of which there is a LOT) is actually mixed on this point. Some studies find that being involved in a church helps people feel integrated; others suggest that the “strictness” of a church (how much it frowns on “bad” behavior) may actually create too much internal tension thus creating or amplifying depression. The studies keep coming in and we’re still not completely clear on what works and what doesn’t.

        In a study I stumbled upon recently however caught my research eye. Sociologists Richard Petts and Anne Jolliff examined data on several thousand American adolescents in the mid 1990s. Unlike a number of studies on depression among youth, this one actually included African, Asian, and Latino youth alongside their white peers. This inclusion by itself sets this study apart from the pack, but their findings really push our thinking in important ways. Why? Because while greater church attendance is associated with lower depression among black and white teens, this linear relationship does not appear for Asian and Latino teens.

            Before digging a little deeper, allow me to review some basic features about race and depression. Racial minorities typically score higher on depression symptomatology as a result of their minority status. Despite our desire to believe that race doesn’t matter, higher rates of depression suggest otherwise. This difference may be due to a variety of reasons including lower socioeconomic status, family instability, immigrant status and cultural expectations that are at odds with the world that these teens see in their school or through mass media. This can include highly restrictive rules on friendships with non-same-ethnic peers, and prescribed expectations on one’s role in the family (working the family business, narrow aspirations for careers based on monetary gain and perceived high social status). It’s not about genetics, it’s about social conditions that are tied to many minority teen lives.

            That said, I want to turn to the researchers’ findings regarding Asian Americans. Petts and Jolliff found the following in their analyses: “…there is evidence that religious participation may be associated with higher depressive symptoms for Asian adolescents.” Further they state: “Indeed supplementary analyses suggests that the positive relationship between religious participation and depression is especially strong for second-generation Asian adolescents.” And a little later they find that “once self-esteem is accounted for, Asian youth are actually more likely to experience lower depression if they feel that religion is unimportant.” To be more clear, no other group of teens, based on race categories, shows this pattern of “more religion, more depression.”  

            Petts and Jolliff explain that perhaps the traditional and patriarchal nature of Asian religious institutions may explain these patterns. Further they suggest that since Asian American youth identify less with Christian religious institutions they face an added tension where their cultural heritage is bundled not only with a culture that they see as “not American” but also a religion that is “not American.” This is sometimes described as having a “double minority status” although it’s usually applied to a combination of racial and gender statuses.

            As with many studies, this one too has its limitations. The small number of Asian teens surveyed makes it hard to determine whether it is double minority status or whether Asian American Christians also suffer from the same problem. It appears that Asian American teens who are not religious are actually protected from depressive symptoms. So as I reflect on this season that is supposed to celebrate hope for many Christians, a hope that even compels one to want to tell others about it, I am left wondering whether Asian American Christian communities might actually be killing the hope in their youth? If the suggested explanation, a cultural dissonance at church, is part of the puzzle, what should an Asian American Christian community do? Do they have to give up even more of their ethnic identity in order to preserve the mental and spiritual health of the next generation? Is there another way?

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  • JB

    I have not taken the time to review their research methodology — is it possible that the causality works the other direction (e.g., Asian-American teens who are depressed are more likely to become involved in religion?) If so, that might suggest religion as a place of solace for the struggling.

    • Jerry Park

      Hi JB, thanks for your question. As Margarita Mooney has pointed out, it’s certainly possible that the direction might be reversed. The paper used wave I information on religious belief and practice and tested it on wave II depression outcomes. To test your question, we would need religious participation on wave III and repeat the same model but change the variables: depressive symptoms at wave II predicted on religious participation outcomes on wave III. I haven’t looked at this dataset so it’s not clear whether this is possible but it’s a great question that needs to be studied.

  • John

    Thanks for discovering this and passing along the report. Clearly, a research report worthy of more attention. I will pass this along in turn.

  • Michael Chung

    This is scary to think that the church is killing our youth or for that matter, its people. Makes me want to be on the look-out for people that I could suspect are depressed. Thanks for this piece, a reminder for us not to be too consumed with our own lives while their are so many hurting around us.

  • Thomas R

    This might be based in unfair stereotypes of Asians, but I wondered if maybe among Asian-Americans more religious families might expect more of kids or just place a lower value on happiness. I know in some Asian traditions conforming to family or to expectations is placed as more important than personal happiness. Or possibly some religious people feel a bit of depression in adolescence might be “worth it” if what’s depressing them are “less fun” behaviors they’ll be glad they had later on.

    • Jerry Park

      Hi Thomas that’s an interesting insight, it reminds me of the old “Protestant ethic” – someone who is fairly sober-minded and works hard is said to have the kind of work ethic that isn’t all that fun to be around. This might be connected to a highly religious kind of crowd. But here’s the thing: the study included all racial groups so if it was about a kind of hard work (for which Asian Americans get the label “model minority”) why didn’t it apply to hard workers among white, black, and Latino teens too?

      • Thomas R

        That’s a good question, I’m not really sure. Different attitudes to work or something? I was just hypothesizing anyway. At least it, apparently, didn’t sound offensive.

  • Tony Lin

    I think the correlational difference between whites/black and Latino/Asian teens has more to do with immigration status than any inherent racial or ethnic differences. The role of the church is very different for these two groups. Since the survey was from the 90s there’s a good chance that a large number of Latinos/Asian teens surveyed were children of recent immigrants so they were probably attending ethnic churches where English was not used and they had little spiritual care. Unlike whites/black teens who attended churches where adults served as their teachers and leaders, the spiritual care of some Latino but especially Asian kids/teens was probably left to the only available English speakers around, older kids/teens.

    In many cases, again, especially for Asians, church attendance can make teens feel even MORE isolated and confused. I’d be curious to see what the research yields now that many Asian churches have adults, many theologically trained, caring for the spiritual needs of their teens.

    • Jerry Park

      Thanks for this sociologicla observation Tony, and it’s a good one. The study does not account for the immigration status of the parents, but it does include whether the teenager was native-born or not. This did not make a difference. However, I would agree that most of these Asian and Latino teens were probably in immigrant ethnic churches. If you look at the tables in the study you will see that the authors also accounted for “parental supervision” and “parental engagement”. The former increased depression among all teens, but did not take away the effect of religious participation for Asian American teens. So maybe you’re right Tony, if we redo this survey and identify whether there was a youth group pastor or some other kind of adult, maybe the effect might go away. In the absence of that possibility though, perhaps it’s the case that many Asian American youth are only looking after themselves rather than by an adult that relates to them.

  • ana christina

    “Do they have to give up even more of their ethnic identity in order to preserve the mental and spiritual health of the next generation? Is there another way?”

    GREAT Question…we should discuss. This is a problem I have encountered being part of the Asian American Church community and a general problem I have seen through the ‘hagwon’ culture and academic pressure. Religion can be very very bad. However, belief in GOD and Christ brings FREEDOM, not CHAINS. This is something that needs to be addressed and as adults in this dilemma, we need to reach out to our little bro/sisters to help spread that love and freedom we have been blessed with.

    • Jerry Park

      Thanks Ana Christina, yes there seems to be a disconnect between what Christianity usually means for most people including angst-ridden teens. What this study suggests is that there is a really serious disconnect between a faith that should lift up religious Asian American teens, many of whom are Christian.

  • i remember when just the abstract of the study came out two or three years ago, and it made me wonder whether the problem for AsAm is that our wholesale adoption of white, evangelical theology may not fit too well. we need to understand how our theology is interacting with our culture in a clearly destructive way. it’s hard to accept depression as a symptom of gospel/goodnews.

    • Jerry Park

      Thanks for your question Danny and it’s a great one: is there something problematic about white evangelical theology and how it interacts with Asian and Asian American culture and community? If there is a disjunct between these two, could depression be a result for these teens? And if so, do we have an alternative model? I’m not sure I have a good answer at that point. Let me know what you think!

      • If I think about the pedagogy of AsAm churches, the explicit/implicit/null all suggest that good Christians do lots of things: attendance, prayer, quiet times, volunteer, give, etc. It would be easy to confuse the burden to “do” with the approval of GOD the Father. Take the pressure that most 2nd gen already feel to honor and please our parents, and throw on the need to make a divine Father who has sacrificed so much happy — that seems a formula for higher depression rates.

        • Jerry Park

          This is a great point Danny, there might be an added dimension of applying the same standard of pleasing/honoring one’s parents to an all-powerful Parent and pleasing him too. One question that I can’t figure out is why this happens for Asian American youth and not youth of other cultures even after accounting for other characteristics like socioeconomic status, biculturalism etc. Is there something very particular about Asian American religious participation that is especially problematic that does not happen for other youth? This might require a systematic analysis of church or religious community culture of Asian Americans and compare those to other community settings to figure out why this pattern emerges.

  • Jonathan Story

    It’s important to remember that most studies turn out to be wrong, so it would be a mistake to read too much into these results. It seems to me that there are many factors in play for asian teens in the US: the usual teenage angst; conflicting expectations from parents, relatives, teachers, and white and asian peers; cultural conflicts; the type of religious belief/expression; etc. Grasping at a simplistic answer is more likely to produce, as the expression goes, more heat than illumination.

    • Jerry Park

      Thank you for your comment Jonathan; the study I cite has actually been vetted through scholarly peer-review so the findings are not “wrong” nor “simplistic” per se. There are qualifications behind any study, and I tried to articulate some of them, and if you read the study, the authors point to alternative explanations as well. The other possible explanations you raise are important, but here’s the complication: how might those factors be particularly unique for church-attending Asian Americans? The study included teens of all major racial backgrounds and the main point is that if angst, conflicting expectations, culture etc. are at root, why is it unique to Asian Americans who are active in a local congregation and not for any other racial group especially those who are similarly active in their congregation?