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By On December 11th, 2017

Asian American women face unique barriers keeping them from eating disorder treatment

Eating disorders are often thought of as a “white girl” problem, but new research suggests young Asian American women are equally likely to live with an eating disorder. Unfortunately, they just aren’t receiving treatment due to a number of cultural and social issues, says Yuying Tsong, associate professor in human services at California State University, Fullerton.

Compared to the average person with an eating disorder, young Asian American women living with these disorders are less likely to be educated about eating disorders or the treatments available for eating disorders. This lack of awareness or eating disorder education was found to also extend to these young women’s parents.

Tsong explains that while little research on eating disorders has focused specifically on Asian Americans, what little research is available suggests that Asian American women are at equal risk for eating disorders. However, they are frequently misdiagnosed.

“So there is a stereotype that Asian American women don’t have as many eating disorders as white women do,” Tsong says.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to eating disorders. Past studies have found that Asian Americans are half as likely as white Americans to seek mental health services in general.

Tsong says she was motivated to explore the issue when she noticed that the Asian American women she met with for her post-doctoral clinical work in counseling often expressed concerns about their body image – even though most had never sought help for that specific issue. After talking with other clinicians, including Cal State Fullerton associate professor Rebekah Smart, Tsong discovered this was a wide-spread experience.

Tsong and Smart initially worked together in a study that found Asian American women are under considerably higher pressure to be thin compared to clients from other cultures. Overall, they say that Asian American women’s parents strongly encouraged thinness as they say it as essential to their daughters’ success in America.

For the new study aimed at identifying barriers preventing Asian Americans from receiving treatment, Tsong and Smart worked with three students in the Department of Counseling to recruit Asian Americans who had experienced disordered eating behaviors or lived with body image issues. In total, the team found 212 participants with an average age of around 25, including students at the university. Roughly 75% of the participants were females, and slightly more than half were second-generation.

The researchers then categorized barriers preventing the participants from seeking mental health services as being personal, social, structural, stigma, beliefs, and mental health literacy.

The team says personal reasons included those who refused to acknowledge there was an issue, not knowing how to express their troubles, or being too shy or embarrassed. Social barriers included family and religious issues.

The early findings showed that many of these women faced a number of barriers preventing them from receiving treatment – especially from social issues and stigma. Lack of mental health literacy was also a common theme.

With their next study, Tsong and Smart aim to specifically focus on lack of mental health literacy.

“I am conducting research on mental health literacy — how able we are to recognize eating disorder symptoms in ourselves or in other people; how able we are to find resources to help; and if we can use literacy as a prevention or intervention strategy to reduce stigma and promote help-seeking attitudes and behaviors,” Tsong said.

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