Korean American Mental Health in its Familial Context

This 2004-2006 research extends from 2003-2004 survey and interview research with Korean American and South Asian American college students at the University of Illinois. At the heart of the research was survey and ethnographic research conducted by a six person interdisciplinary team that included four stupendous graduate students: Grace Chung (Human and Community Development), Jin-Heon Jung (Anthropology) Hyeyoung Kang (Human and Community Development), and Euna Oh (Counseling Psychology). Throughout the project, we culled field research notes (on interviews, participant observations, and survey administration) in a web-based data archive. All project researchers reviewed and commented upon the field documents, making for a robust archive of data and reflection.


Project Description

We conducted interdisciplinary research on the mental health and functioning of Korean American adolescents and their immigrant parents. Our study was premised on a seeming paradox in mental health research on Asian Americans: a high level of competent academic, familial, and occupational functioning, and yet high levels of psychological distress symptoms (e.g., depression, low self-esteem, etc.) that are presumably due to Asian Americans’ immigrant experience and minority status (e.g., stress of immigration and adjustment to the new environment, culture, and language; thwarted occupational aspiration of the parent generation; socioeconomic pressures; family expectations for the second-generation children to succeed). We explored parent-child pathways at work in this manifest resilience -- and the hidden risks -- of the members of one immigrant community.


Hypotheses and Goals

We had the following goals for our project: (1) To examine the effects of parents’ mental health on families’ and adolescent children’s well-being and functioning in immigrant Korean American families, (2) to explore the ways in which immigrant Korean families understand and negotiate the meanings and impact of their mental health in their lives, and (3) to examine both the manifest resilience and risks of apparent high social functioning in Korean American families in the context of immigration history and in relation to intra-group heterogeneity.

Based on our previous research on college-aged Korean Americans, we hypothesized that there would be more manifest difficulties in family relationships and functioning for adolescents than for college students. Having identified several coping strategies of college students that appeared to enhance their resilience from earlier family difficulties, we were interested in exploring the extent to which as well as how these coping strategies developed over the course of adolescence. Given the high rates of small entrepreneurship among this population, we hypothesized that there would be considerable adolescent independence from parents, with accompanying psychological distance.


Preliminary Findings

The survey data are still being prepared for analysis. The ethnographic research confirmed that even high functioning families (i.e., children function well in school and parents in the workplace) experienced considerable family-related stress. We found evidence to support our initial working hypothesis that the strategies that Korean American college students employed to cope with family stress were also in place for some adolescents. These strategies include: adolescent recognition of parental suffering related to immigration, racism, language barriers, downward occupational mobility, and economic insecurities; reliance on personal religious faith; and resigned acceptance of their position as children of immigrant parents. For other adolescents, we found hints of some behavioral problems (e.g., suicidal ideation, minor conduct problems such as stealing and running away from home) that appeared to be related to family pressures and strains. However, these instances of adolescent behavioral problems did not for the large part manifest in overt family dysfunction, as the adolescents and parents appeared to “contain” and manage this suffering. We nonetheless consider this type of evidence as pointing to the significant level of psychological suffering among Korean American parents and children despite the manifest resilience they exhibit. To have the whole family succeed in the immigration enterprise involves much psychic energy, pain, tension that must be managed by both parents and the children in order to contain and domesticate the individual frustration and to sustain the family. In this context, we found that parents struggled to strategize optimal ways to raise their bicultural children in order to flourish in the United States. We have documented that these sufferings and struggles are largely kept private within families and are accessed by researchers ethnographically only after repeated contacts. For the rare families that publicly acknowledge and attempt to seek help for the “fall outs” (in the form of adolescent externalizing behavior), there are virtually no resources or accurate information to assist the parents and the children successfully negotiate these family crises.