BEIJING, CHINA - DECEMBER 20: Jeremy Lin #7 of Beijing Ducks in action during 2019/2020 CBA League - Beijing Ducks v Zhejiang Golden Bulls at Beijing Wukesong Sport Arena on December 20, 2019 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images)

When Asian American Athletes Succeed In Breaking 'Model Minority' Stereotype, Their Mental Health Can Suffer

Why this matters

The model minority stereotype holds up Asian Americans as well adjusted and academic high achievers. But recent research shows that Asian and multiracial student-athletes may have a higher risk of mental health concerns than their peers.

Sport is widely recognized as being good for physical and mental health. The physical exercise, camaraderie, and other elements of sport can boost mental health and well-being. But for Asian American and multiracial student-athletes, the discrimination they face may undercut the mental health benefit they get from sport, according to recent research.

Discrimination and stereotypes are stressors known to harm mental health. Research by Alisia (Giac-Thao) Tran, associate professor in the Counseling and Counseling Psychology program at Arizona State University’s College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, has shown:

  • Asian American and multiracial student-athletes may have a higher risk of mental health concerns than their peers.
  • When Asian American athletes face discrimination, the effect can be exacerbated because they don’t adhere to the model minority stereotype.

Tran is a recipient of the Global Sport Institute's Seed Grant Funding.

Heightened risk

In a study published in 2020, Tran found that Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) and multiracial student athletes had a higher risk of depression and suicide concerns than their white counterparts.

Tran looked at trends in functionally impairing depression, significant anxiety, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts among student-athletes, using data from the 2010-2015 American College of Health Association National College Health Assessment II spring survey of nearly 40,000 varsity-level college student-athletes.

“[S]tudent-athlete status appeared to be most consistently beneficial for White student-athletes relative to their nonstudent-athlete counterparts. In contrast, Asian/Pacific Islander student-athletes did not appear to be benefited by student-athlete status—if anything, student-athlete status may have been a liability in terms of risk for suicide attempts for Asian/Pacific Islander,” Tran wrote. “The findings add a racialized nuance to the portrayal of student-athlete status as a mental health benefit.”

For suicidal ideation in particular, only white student-athletes seemed to benefit consistently from being athletes. For Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and AAPI athletes, rates of suicidal ideation were comparable to those of their non-athlete peers.

The forms and nuances of racism and discrimination that various racial groups face can be very different. For example, Tran cited a study of college faculty that found they had lowered academic expectations and lowered perceptions of qualification or merit for Black student-athletes compared with their white peers.

For AAPI student-athletes, these expectations may take the form of encouragement to excel academically but not athletically. It’s a familiar trope for AAPI students who aren’t high academic achievers and receive messages like, “Well, aren't you supposed to be good at school? Aren't you supposed to be good at math?” Tran said. “These messages are hurtful, and they may direct you to put your efforts into those avenues.”

The model minority myth

The model minority stereotype paints Asian Americans as industrious and intellectually high-achieving yet also cold, quiet nerds, Tran said. “It's such a myopic view of Asian Americans that's cast on a very diverse group of individuals,” she said. “It doesn't really afford them the opportunity to be athletes. It’s not part of this ethos about what an Asian individual is in the U.S.”

This myth overlooks the challenges that Asians may face that go against the stereotype, and it’s also harmful to other minorities, because it holds Asians up as a “model” that other minorities are told they don’t measure up to.

Asian athletes break the model minority stereotype. They are what Tran calls a counter-stereotype. And they are rare: Only about 2% of NCAA student-athletes are Asian Americans, while about 6% of the U.S. population is Asian American, according to 2018 NCAA and U.S. Census data, she noted.

Tran found in a recent study on counter-stereotypes that the effects of discrimination are exacerbated for Asian American athletes and that conforming to idealized stereotypes may be harmful to these athletes when coupled with discrimination. (The study is forthcoming in Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology.)

“The model minority stereotype that heralds Asians and elevates their status—that they're all good—comes with risks and liabilities for student-athletes,” Tran said.

Using data from the 2015-2019 Healthy Minds Survey of university students, Tran looked at the effect of conforming and failing to conform to idealized stereotypes of Asians, among student-athletes who identified as Asian. She found that, for athletes who conformed with the stereotype, discrimination was tied to less positive mental health.

The study used the stereotyped characteristics of grades and body weight. Discrimination was linked to less positive mental health for Asian student-athletes who reported A-average grades, but there was no link for those who reported average GPAs of B or lower. For women categorized as underweight or normal weight, Tran found a link between discrimination and anxiety, but no link for those who were overweight or obese.

This study also found that Asian student-athletes may be at risk for some substance use concerns, such as binge drinking and illicit substance use. This research counters the idea that Asians are well adapted and don’t need support. It also shows that conforming to idealized positive qualities ascribed to Asian Americans can be a mental health liability, particularly for student-athlete women facing discrimination, Tran explained.

Anecdotally, student-athletes have told Tran about discrimination they’ve experienced from their teammates and the social rejection they felt. Some explained that when they experienced discrimination or mental health hardship, they tried to just play through it or hide it, she said. “A lot of those messages that athletes get to ‘toughen up’ or ‘just power through and keep focused’; some of that's unhealthy,” she said.

Athletes may face racism and discrimination from coaches, officials, and spectators, as well. Tran pointed to the example of NBA player Jeremy Lin, who has talked about being called “coronavirus” on the court and enduring other racist slurs, as well as the effect on his mental health.

“Sometimes, other individuals are more comfortable when somebody conforms to a stereotype,” Tran said. “So, when an Asian individual doesn't conform to that model minority stereotype, that can be something that can make others uncomfortable.”

Some athletic staff have told Tran that “there's this idea of colorblindness, and they don't see their athletes’ race or ethnicity,” she said. But ignoring their cultural background might mean ignoring certain groups’ risk of mental health problems.

“What athletic and academic stakeholders have to take into account is that Asian and Pacific Islander and multiracial American student-athletes may be at higher risk relative to other groups, and they may also be very good at hiding and performing through it,” Tran said.

The urgency

In 16 of the largest cities in the U.S., anti-Asian hate crime increased by 149% in 2020, according to the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. As Asians deal with a rising tide of anti-Asian racism, this issue may be especially important now.

“We're seeing this reckoning with Asian Americans and the anti-Asian violence that's going on right now,” Tran said. It’s calling attention to Asian Americans, and “the whole ethos of the model minority myth is that we didn't want to think of Asians as having problems.”

This rampant anti-AAPI hate dehumanizes AAPI people. For AAPI student-athletes, part of their humanity is being athletes, and telling them that they can only be one thing is damaging, Tran said. “This is a ripe time where we can address these things, talk about them, and not let them go unnoticed,” she said.

At the same time, when COVID shut down sports around the country, the shutdowns harmed athletes’ mental health. An NCAA survey last fall showed student-athletes faced heightened mental health concerns.

Among youth, a University of Wisconsin study of adolescent athletes in Wisconsin found that 65% reported anxiety symptoms in May 2020, with 25% reporting moderate or severe anxiety. And white youth returned to sports faster than Asian, Hispanic/Latino, and Black youth, according to an Aspen Institute report. It found that during COVID, white youth spent 174% more time playing sports than Asian youth, 46% more than Hispanic/Latino youth, and 39% more than Black youth.

What can be done?

The results of Tran’s 2020 study “make the case for adopting a racially/ethnically aware cultural lens when conceptualizing mental health risk and resilience for diverse student-athletes,” she wrote. Also, outreach efforts should focus on AAPI and multiracial student-athletes, because they may be at heightened risk of mental health concerns.

Tran’s research also found that exercise appeared to act as a buffer against the effects of discrimination for Asian student-athletes, which suggests that encouraging exercise and sports in Asian communities might be helpful. This could involve profiling Asian athletes on college campuses and in the media, Tran said. “Sport has great potential to support Asian communities,” she said.

Also, advocacy to support Asian communities more broadly might try to broaden perspectives of Asian heterogeneity and raise awareness of the harm that stereotypes cause, even when the stereotypes are considered positive ones, Tran said.

“We have this opportunity for allyship to look different now,” Tran said. This might mean leaving behind the idea of colorblindness, she said, “and shifting to a different possibility that maybe it's not the same and that we need to be better allies to fight against discrimination and stereotyping and the unfortunate stress that puts on certain individuals.”