As we prepare for TAF and our theme of Identity this year, we wanted to take a deeper look into the issues that affect Asian Americans today. To do so, our tafLabs team reached out to Dr. Cindy Liu, who researches stress and mental health disparities in children and families.
Dr. Cindy Liu is the Director of Multicultural Research at the Commonwealth Research Center, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Instructor of Psychology within the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and an Assistant Research Professor within the Department of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
On a personal level, her ancestors came from a variety of places, including Keelung, Tainan, and Huwei. Now, her family resides primarily in Taipei and Tainan. Her parents had immigrated to Massachusetts for graduate school, and right after she was born, they moved to Minnesota, where she spent her childhood. Cindy’s favorite Taiwanese foods include dan bing, lembu.
Take a look at our interview with her below.
- How did you first become interested in the mental health of East Asian immigrant populations in the US?
As with a lot of other children of Taiwanese immigrants, I enrolled in an engineering program at college, with a plan for being an engineer or medical doctor. Towards the end of my second year at the University of Minnesota, I realized I was less than enthusiastic about chemistry and physics. I decided to do something a little different and take a psychology course for fun. I was surprised to learn that psychology could be a scientific pursuit. I ended up switching majors and getting experience working in a psychology research lab where I learned about parenting and infant stress. During this time, I wondered if there might be differences among infants and children across different cultural groups, given my own upbringing as a Taiwanese American in Minnesota. As a result, I continually added to my lab experience by doing research on Asian Americans. It was until later in grad school where I realized that the knowledge of stress in child development and culture could yield important insights about the mental health of Asian American children and families. I currently take a lifespan and intergenerational perspective to my work with a focus on two points within development – the perinatal and childhood periods.
- What project are you working on now?
My research has shown that Asian American women during the postpartum period have high rates of postpartum depression, more so than Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics. This is consistent with other research indicating higher levels of suicidality in Asian American women between the ages of 15-24 years. Previous history of mental health issues often precedes postpartum depression, so in a way, this finding should not be surprising; however, it is a major concern when we think about the effects that this has on the individual and family. Aside from the distress that parents with mental health issues might experience, poor parent mental health is also a risk to children’s development. What is particularly problematic is that Asian American women are less likely to be screened for postpartum depression compared to other groups. Given our knowledge in this area, we have a way to go in identifying and treating Asian American women suffering from postpartum depression through culturally appropriate ways.
A second research project is a collaboration with others from Wellesley and U Mass Boston where we’ve been studying immigration stress among Asian immigrant families in the Boston area. One thing that has emerged from this work is the extent to which parents often are separated from their children during the course of migration. For instance, among our sample, approximately 20% of the Asian immigrant parents send their U.S. born infants back to Asia as a child care arrangement. Often, grandparents and other family members take care of the children until they can enroll in school or be part of some child care arrangement back in the U.S. What we are finding is that this practice commonly occurs among Taiwanese and Chinese families regardless of education or income level, and that this practice may have implications for children’s relationship with their parents and other family members, and relationships with others later in life. We are currently enrolling adults 18+ who experienced this separation early in life: https://www.wellesley.edu/psychology/faculty/chen/chenlab/participate
- Have you identified some key drivers of stress in Asian American families?
The stress that Asian American families often experience are related to immigration and acculturation. That is, the move and the adjustment to a new culture and language can be quite hard. Parenting is a challenge in and of itself but may be especially challenging for immigrants who do not have support from extended family members that they would otherwise have if they were back in Asia. As well, children often acculturate at a faster rate than their immigrant parents. Therefore, there may be a divergence in cultural values and behaviors between parents and children over time. Family conflicts may arise as a result of these stressors.
- What is the ultimate goal of your research? How do you hope to impact the communities you study?
I hope that my research can be translated to evidence based practices that serve Asian American families in a meaningful way. There is so much stigma around mental health within Asian culture. A challenge for researchers and providers such as myself is to make supports approachable and relevant for Asian Americans – whether they are first or second generation, etc. For instance, the word “stress” may be a very acceptable term when talking with Asian Americans about mental health related issues; at the same time, it is a term that is appropriate and measurable from a research standpoint. There are also so many strengths among Asian American communities. Thus, another task is to identify and build upon those existing strengths. This might include collaborating with community organizations such as community centers, churches, or language schools, or even specific individuals from informal social networks (e.g., elders) that are known to have a positive influence on their peers.
- Do you have practical advice for Asian American parents and/or children to help them increase their well-being?
For both parents and children, having an awareness and appreciation of the fact that different family members have different acculturative challenges and ways of expressing emotion may be useful in developing a sense of empathy and understanding. I think that the Asian American community has started to make great strides in having discussions that relate to mental health and well-being. I am hopeful that Asian Americans across generations can not only contribute to this discussion but to consider this area as a viable and important educational and career opportunity.