The “Asian” label hides health inequalities among students of various origins

The simplistic label of “Asian” hides how different the experiences of high school students from different Asian backgrounds are, especially when it comes to mental distress, according to a new study from the Youth19 survey.

The results show how misleading it can be to lump young people with Asian identities into one category, as often happens in health and government studies, says University Associate Professor Roshini Peiris-John. from Auckland.

Associate Professor Roshini Peiris-John

The Youth19 survey is the latest in the Youth2000 survey series that surveys over 7,000 students on everything from family life to sexual activity. Of these, nearly 2,000 – or a quarter – identify as Asian. “Asian” captures everyone from Afghanistan in the west to Japan in the east and China in the north to Indonesia in the south. It also covers everyone from newcomers to those with multigenerational ties to New Zealand.

But the new data shows that students in South Asia, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Bangladesh, experience higher poverty rates, with 15% having parents who always worry about money for food. Students from East Asian countries, from China in the west and north to Japan in the east and Indonesia in the south, are less likely to raise concerns about poverty .

Students from East Asia have higher mental health needs than students from South Asia, with around a third of them experiencing significant depressive symptoms. Students from East Asia were also less likely to have access to health care (73%) and had higher unmet health care needs (21%).

“Moving away from this overly broad ‘Asian’ label opens up possibilities for targeted interventions,” says Dr Peiris-John, co-director of the Center for Asian and Ethnic Minority Health Research and Evaluation (CAHRE) at the University of Auckland and author of the report.

The report also highlights the high rates of mental distress and discrimination experienced by young people in East Asia and South Asia. One in three East Asian and South Asian girls experienced significant depressive symptoms.

The biggest problem for young people today is “to feel compelled to adapt to the image that society wants us to be, for example skinny, pretty, having the best phone or having a boyfriend” , explains a 15-year-old Pakistani. respondent. For a 15-year-old Chinese participant in the survey, the biggest problem was “anxiety and depression, not having someone to talk to and being afraid to talk about it.”

More East Asian boys (22%) than South Asian boys (11%) experienced significant depressive symptoms. Dr. Peiris-John is particularly concerned about the results of the suicide study. One in four Asian girls (26%) (and 16% of Asian boys) said they had seriously thought about suicide in the past 12 months (compared to 23% of European girls and 15% of European boys).

“Asian students are often under pressure to maintain the impression that they are successful, accomplished and resilient. These pressures and expectations could affect mental health. Worse yet, mental health issues are often hidden because the stereotype also acts as a barrier to accessing support, ”says Dr Peiris-John.

Students from all Asian groups reported high rates of racism and discrimination, and safety concerns.

  • One in four said they had been treated unfairly by a teacher because of their ethnicity (compared to 14% of Pākehā and other European students)
  • 10% said they had been bullied at school because of their ethnicity or religion (compared to 3% of Pākehā and other European students)
  • 5% said they had been treated unfairly by a healthcare professional because of their ethnicity (vs. 3% of Pākehā and other European students)
  • 45% did not feel safe in their neighborhood (compared to 39% of Pākehā and other European students)

For a 14-year-old Sri Lankan respondent, the biggest problem for young people is being afraid “to go out and show their religion in public without getting hurt”. A 17-year-old Asian boy said: “Not having to hear racism as a ‘joke’ and having a face to fit and accept it would make life at school better.”

“The experience of discrimination and racism is known to be an underlying cause of poor health outcomes, reduced access to health care and ethnic inequities in health,” says Dr. Peiris-John. The impact of racism on mental health among Asian communities in New Zealand has been highlighted by the Suicide Mortality Review Committee.

The authors of the report propose measures such as:

  • disaggregate data for specific Asian ethnic groups in youth health studies
  • fight racism and discrimination experienced by young people of all Asian groups
  • create safe and inclusive physical and social spaces in schools, communities and health care settings for all young people
  • improve access to health care, avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach
  • address the invisibility of Asian health in national strategies and planning.

The Youth19 study is jointly led by Associate Professor Terryann Clark of the University of Auckland and Associate Professor Terry Fleming of the University of Victoria, and draws on the work of researchers from the Universities of Auckland, Victoria and Otago. For the full report, visit

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