Asian American Medical Hazard: Somatic Symptom Disorder

When she was 14, Diana Chao began experiencing severe pain in her eyes.  The pressure buildup in her eyes was diagnosed as uveitis, an inflammatory eye disease that caused her to go temporarily blind.  For the next four years, she repeatedly visited doctors to find the cause of her uveitis, which would recur every few months.   When an ophthamologist mentioned that she had seen the same symptoms in patients with mental illness, it dawned on Chao, who had been experienced depression as a child and was also diagnosed with bi-polar disorder as teenager, that her mind might be affecting her body.  This article from the Philadelphia Inquirer talks about Diana Chao and how somatic symptom disorder, a form of mental illness that manifests itself as bodily symptoms, is actually common in Asians and Asian Americans.

How does mental illness manifest physically in Asian Americans?  The article mentions that how chest pain, headaches, and stomach problems with no known physical causes are common in Cambodian refugees, many of whom are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  It also talks about a Filipina American who experienced daily stomach pains which an organic cause could not be found.  This Filipina traced back the source of her problems to being sexually abused as a child.  These kind of stories are very familiar to me.  I have a relative who had persistent stomach pains for which no physical source could be found.  Alleviating anxiety and depression were key to making her pain go away.  One explanation for why somatic symptom disorder occurs in Asians and Asian Americans is that many Asian cultures stigmatize mental illness and tend to repress talk about feelings, causing mental problems and issues to manifest themselves in other ways.

As for Diana Chao, she attributes fewer episodes of uveitis to better mental health treatments.  Her own story is remarkable.  Despite suffering from uveitis symptoms and dealing with bi-polar disorder, she is a photographer who has placed work in prominent places and is currently a sophomore  at Princeton University.   She advocates for mental health treatment, giving a TedxTeen talk on the subject and founding a nonprofit called Letters to Strangers, which aims to destigmatize mental illness and to increase access to mental health care for people aged 13 through 24.   I had previously written about Wendell Tang, who suffered from mental illness but did not receive treatment.  Diana Chao shows that students with mental illness can thrive, even at intense Ivy league institutions, when they receive treatment.

(h/t:  akj)

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Author: Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.