Issues of Addiction in Asian Americans

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Asian Americans and Substance Abuse

Among all Asian American and Pacific Islanders, five percent reported past-year illicit drug use in the year 2000.[3]

Alcohol is an issue, too, and rates vary amongst those from different Asian countries. For instance, 62.1 percent of American immigrants from Japan reported past-month alcohol use while those from Korea were at 53.2 percent, Filipinos were at 24.1 percent, Chinese individuals at 28.4 percent, those from India at 26.6 percent, and Vietnamese individuals at 26.4 percent.[4] On average, Korean Americans consumed 7.5 alcoholic drinks each week, Vietnamese Americans 5.1 drinks a week, Filipino Americans 4.6 every week, and Japanese Americans 3.5 drinks per week.[5] Additionally, weekly alcohol consumption generally increased among most subgroups of Asian Americans the longer they were in the United States.[6]

Another analysis reported a past-month rate of alcohol use among Asian Americans of 39.8 percent, compared to 55.2 percent across the country.[7] Binge drinking in the past month was 13.2 percent compared to the national average of 24.5 percent.[8] When it comes to illegal drug use, 3.4 percent of Asian Americans reported past-month use versus 7.9 percent nationwide.[9]

Does Age Matter?

young and old

There may be slight generational influences that make some Asian American age groups more likely to engage in substance abuse than others. Younger generations of Asian Americans are the most likely of any generation to have been born in the United States. Likewise, those who are born here have demonstrated higher rates of substance abuse than Asian Americans born in native countries who later emigrated.[10] That being said, even older generations who were born in America fall into this category.

One of the deciding factors in the age difference among Asian American substance abusers may very well be that teens and young adults of this race are seemingly more prone to issues of mental health. One age-related link showcases a younger generation. Asian American high school students were asked if they had ever considered suicide in the previous year and 19 percent responded that they had.[11] This was compared to only 16 percent among all high school students of all races.[12] Looking at some even younger demographics, a 2003 mental health screening of 1,032 Chinese American children aged 12 to 18 produced results touting 12 percent of them exhibited signs of depression.[13]

Mental health disorders have been proven to seriously impact an individual’s propensity toward substance abuse. In America, around half of all people with severe mental illness have a substance abuse problem.[14] There appears to be no significant difference between the rate of mental illness among Asian Americans and other ethnicities living in the United States. The 10th leading cause of death for Asian Americans as of 2009 was suicide, and the same applies to Caucasian Americans.[15]

Another age-related difference appears to relate to suicide. Of all women over the age of 65 in the US, Asian American women have the highest rate of suicide.[16] The rate of suicide-related deaths among Asian American women aged 15 to 24 increased by 96.3 percent from 2000 to 2009.[17] Suicide rates are actually higher across the board for Caucasian Americans at 12.8 percent than it is for Filipino Americans at 3.5 percent, Chinese Americans at 8.3 percent, or Japanese Americans at 9.1 percent.[18]


Certain mental health disorders are more common in Asian Americans. Neurasthenia impacts three to four percent of this population.[19] Another disorder, known as hwa-byung, is up to three times as prevalent among Korean Americans as it is to Koreans in their home country.[20]

Some Southeast Asians have ended up in America as refugees. After seeing the horrific events that affected their home country in wartime, many come to America with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Around 70 percent of Southeast Asian refugees living in America have been noted as having PTSD.[21]

Some process disorders may be more prevalent among certain Asian Americans than the general US population, too. Among Chine Americans, 20 percent are said to be problem gamblers, while gambling addictions only affect five percent of the general population.[22] Chinese Americans have a 17 percent lifetime rate of major depression, too.[23]

Popularly Abused


Asian American and Pacific Islanders primarily seek treatment for alcohol, marijuana, stimulants, opiates and cocaine.[24] In one study of males in this ethnic group, 24 percent used an illicit drug at least once a week, 51 percent used club drugs, and 44 percent used a minimum of three illicit drugs.[25]

Another study surveyed 206 people of Asian descent living in American, all aged between 14 and 35. The study showed that 97 percent of them had used marijuana at some point in their lives, and nearly two-thirds of them had in the previous month.[26] Lifetime rates of Ecstasy use were also alarmingly high at 94 percent, but past-month usage was far lower at 28 percent.[27] Of the whole sample, 55 percent had tried five or more drugs in their lives thus far.[28]


The biggest issue regarding the treatment of Asian American addicts and those with other mental health disorders resides in their cultural views of such illnesses. Some Asian languages don’t even contain an equivalent for the word “depression.” There is often a great amount of shame and stigma among Asians related to depression, and Asian Americans often carry the same views. They fear talking about their problems and worry about how it will reflect on their family.

Many Asian Americans still live with their immediate and extended family members well into adulthood. Their familial bonds are somewhat closer than what the typical American citizen is accustomed to. As such, what their family thinks of them and what others think of their family matters a great deal. Only around 28 percent of Asian Americans who have mental health problems seek help for them.[29]

Many in this ethnic community will pursue traditional treatment methods that are more common in their home nations — such as acupuncture and herbal remedies — before they attempt to seek any kind of help from Western medicine. A comparison of treatment admissions for issues of mental health from the state of California accounted for 104,773 people.[30] Only 10,262 were of Asian descent.[31]


Certain medications that are popularly used to treat white Americans may not be effective in treating Asian Americans. The Asian race possesses the CYP2C19 genetic mutation, which affects some of their capabilities and makes 20 percent of them poor metabolizers of certain drugs — diazepam being one of them — as compared to just three percent among Caucasians.[32]

Even though opiates are a favorite among this ethnic community, the rate of treatment with methadone is quite slim for Asian Americans, shown at just 24 to 27 percent in one study, compared to 46 to 50 percent for Caucasian opiate treatment cases.[33]

It’s no question that one’s cultural background should be taken into account in addiction and mental health treatment. Continued research can further unearth information to help prevent and address substance abuse and addiction in the Asian community.



[1]Asian American Populations.” (n.d.). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed June 12, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Fong, T.W. & Tsuang, J. (November 2007). “Asian-Americans, Addictions, and Barriers to Treatment.” Psychiatry. Accessed June 12, 2015.

[4]Fact Sheet: Asian American and Pacific Islander Alcohol Use.” (n.d.). Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organization. Accessed June 12, 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7]Nationwide Study Shows Substantial Differences in Adult Substance Use Rates Among Various Asian-American Groups.” (2010 May 20). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Accessed June 12, 2015.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Lam, A. (2014 May 24). “A Hidden Tragedy – Mental Illness and Suicide Among Asian Americans.” New American Media. Accessed June 12, 2015.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Kam, K. (2013 Sept 9). “Cultural Stigma Hurts Asian American Teens with Depression.” New American Media. Accessed June 12, 2015.

[14]Mental Illness and Substance Abuse.” (n.d.). National Alliance on Mental Illness. Accessed June 12, 2015.

[15]Mental Health and Asian Americans.” (n.d.). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health. Accessed June 12, 2015.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Hahm, H.C., Chang, S.T., Tong, H.Q., Meneses, M.A., Yuzbasioglu, R.F. & Hien, D. (2014). “Intersection of suicidality and substance abuse among young Asian-American Women: implications for developing interventions in young adulthood.” Advanced Dual Diagnosis. Accessed June 12, 2015.

[18]Asian American and Pacific Islander Community and Mental Health Fact Sheet.” (June 2003). National Alliance on Mental Illness. Accessed June 12, 2015.

[19]US Davis to Launch Asian American Center on Disparities Research.” (n.d.). UC Davis Health System. Accessed June 12, 2015.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Spayde, J. (2015 Feb 24). “Asian-Americans take on stigma of mental illness.” United Healthcare. Accessed June 12, 2015.

[22]Chinese American Mental Health Facts.” (n.d.). National Alliance on Mental Illness. Accessed June 12, 2015.

[23]Asian American and Pacific Islander Community and Mental Health Fact Sheet.” (June 2003). National Alliance on Mental Illness. Accessed June 12, 2015.

[24] Fong, T.W. & Tsuang, J. (November 2007). “Asian-Americans, Addictions, and Barriers to Treatment.” Psychiatry. Accessed June 12, 2015.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Moloney, M., Hunt, G. & Evans, K. (2009 March 16). “Asian American Identity and Drug Consumption: From Acculturation to Normalization.” Journal of Ethnic Substance Abuse. Accessed June 12, 2015.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29]Resources: Minorities and Mental Health.” (2009 April 20). PBS. Accessed June 12, 2015.

[30] Barreto, R.M. & Segal, S.P. (June 2005). “Use of Mental Health Services by Asian Americans.” Psychiatric Services. Accessed June 12, 2015.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Lin, K. & Cheung, F. (June 1999). “Mental Health Issues for Asian Americans.” Psychiatric Services. Accessed June 12, 2015.

[33] Schecter, A. (n.d.). “Drug Dependence and Alcoholism: Volume 2: Social and Behavioral Issues.” Accessed June 12, 2015.


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