A Case Study: Achievement Pressures Among Asian American Students

by Nicole Zillmer

Posted on October 26th, 2021

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Through our close research collaborations with high achieving schools, Authentic Connections has shown many times over that intense pressures to succeed can take a grave toll on young people’s mental health. Until now, little work in the scientific field of risk and resilience research has focused on the impact of the high-achieving school environment on ethnic minorities, and this is especially true for Asian American/Asian/Pacific Islander students. In a special issue of American Psychologist, AC recently published new research exploring the impact of achievement pressure on Asian American youths in particular.

To do this research, we collaborated with six private, high achieving schools from across the US. As part of those schools’ broader wellness initiatives, data was collected on over two thousand students with Asian American student representation ranging from 10% - 18% across schools. Using the 25-item Well-Being Index (WBI), AC researchers were able to compare demographic groups in terms of their rates of depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation at school. Additionally, the researchers measured five different aspects of students’ experiences that could impact students' mental health. These “predictors” included ethnic discrimination, parent perfectionism, internal academic pressure, authenticity, and closeness to school adults.

While Asian American students fared somewhat better than their White classmates on the WBI measures, at some schools rates of anxiety, depression, and rule-breaking were reported by over 10% of students. More concerning, Asian American students reported poorer scores on four out of five predictors, including felt discrimination, parent perfectionism, internal academic pressure, and levels of authenticity (being one’s true self in the presence of others). Critically, all four of these predictors were linked with higher scores on symptoms captured by the WBI. The most consistent and noteworthy associations were found for discrimination (linked to depression, anxiety, and isolation in Asian Americans) and authenticity (linked to depression and isolation in Asian Americans).

Perhaps as might be expected, felt discrimination was far more predictive of depression and feelings of isolation for Asian Americans than for White students. It would seem that many Asian American students in high achieving contexts feel discriminated against, and those who do are at risk for serious distress. In particular, students responded most affirmatively to statements like, “I am treated differently because of my race” and “I am faced with barriers in society because of my race.”

Surprisingly, like Asian American students, White students’ feelings of authenticity were robustly linked to depression, anxiety, and isolation. Feelings of inauthenticity among teens in general could be a potential marker of disturbance, worthy of including as we refine global theories on developmental psychopathology.

That said, it is critical that we consider carefully what each of the specified predictors (discrimination, authenticity, etc.) means in the context of the life of a minority student. As a presumed “model minority,” Asian Americans’ may limit their degree of authenticity, under-reporting any need for help because of felt pressure to assimilate seamlessly to the broader culture. Degree of authenticity may be important for different reasons and in different ways among White students. Designing ways to support students in any demographic group requires attention to those differences.

The strength of this study is in its concerted and novel attention to “within-group” processes of risk and resilience in a group of students normally absent from developmental science. The results provide a useful start for conceptualizing these possible processes and should be followed up with studies that more directly examine the links between predictors like discrimination and authenticity and outcomes of depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation. To both schools and developmental scientists, we recommend increased attention to diversity, equity, inclusion, and mental health issues among Asian American HAS students.

Read the paper in American Psychologist →

Coming Soon!