After years of observing what she describes as “troubling trends” in the way Asian American students are treated within Montgomery County Public Schools, Montgomery Blair junior Viveka Sinha took it upon herself to found the Asian American Mental Health Initiative (AAMHI) in an effort to raise awareness about the harmful effects of stereotyping. The initiative also aims to increase mental health support for Asian American students across the county.
“The real problem is the amount of misinformation there is about Asian Americans,” Sinha said. “Just getting information out there is the biggest step.”
To commemorate Asian American and Pacific Islander Month, which has been established in May since 2009, the AAMHI is hosting a free virtual panel discussion from 7 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday called “Model Minority Myth: Implications and Strategies to Counter.” Students and families will be invited to listen as local experts discuss the unique discrimination and stereotyping Asian American students often face.
Sinha has been involved in STEM magnet programs since elementary school. She said she noticed early on in her education that most of her fellow magnet students were Asian American and seemed to face a higher degree of performance pressure compared to peers, while at the same time receiving what Sinha observed as less support and guidance from staff.
“I noticed that there was an expectation that Asian American students were expected to excel academically—be 100 percent perfect all the time, no room for mistakes,” she said. “Especially after [the] pandemic a lot of my classmates were saying they really feel this pressure but can’t get any help from counselors.”
This phenomenon is often referred to by advocates and researchers as the model minority myth, a harmful race-based stereotype that characterizes people of Asian descent as naturally high performers who can achieve academic success without much help.
Mandy Guo, also a junior at Silver Spring’s Montgomery Blair, said at school she’s noticed this stereotype play out in the way security guards and hall monitors seem to avoid calling out Asian students for being outside of class compared to other students.
“I can just kind of walk past the hall monitors, and they always assume I’m there for a reason—whereas they don’t give other kids the same benefit of the doubt,” she said.
She agreed with Sinha’s observation that most magnet school students at Blair are Asian American, and she added that the idea of being a “model minority” can engrain in students a “sense of superiority.”
“It doesn’t really help that in the magnet program, we’re always separated from the other students. We don’t really have classes with kids who aren’t in the program,” she said. “It definitely creates this sense of isolation.”
A 2021 report published by nonprofit LAAUNCH asked 2,766 U.S. residents to describe Asian Americans using three adjectives. The top two responses were “smart” and “hard-working.” Medical research reveals the harmful impacts of this stereotype on mental health. According to the American Psychological Association, 17% of Asian Americans report poor mental health, yet Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services than the general U.S. population.
Over the past school year, Sinha has created a comprehensive website for the AAMHI including links to various resources; testified twice before the county’s Board of Education; created a lesson plan on the model minority myth that all 3,200 Blair students received; surveyed over 300 Montgomery Blair students about their school experiences; interviewed school board member Julie Yang (Dist. 3) and distributed multilingual informational pamphlets on the model minority myth.
Montgomery Blair resource counselor Makeyda Soriano has been working closely with Sinha to facilitate these activities, including collaborating with the school’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion coordinator to develop the lesson plan, which the school began using in January.
“Going into next school year, we’re discussing how we can broaden this topic and connect it with other related issues,” she said. “We’ve had school discussions around Black Lives Matter and around the Latine community, and in the future, we’re hoping to connect all these topics and talk with students about how they impact each other.”
Soriano said she’s proud that the AAMHI is a student-driven initiative and emphasized the importance of centering student voices on topics that affect them.
Sinha is working with County Councilmember Kristin Mink (D-Dist. 5) to create a similar lesson plan about cultural sensitivity and the Asian American community that the Department of Health and Human Services can incorporate into its training modules for behavior specialists. To this end, Sinha told MoCo360 the AAMHI anticipates giving a presentation to DHHS over the summer.
“We’ve found this is not just a school issue,” Sinha said. “Since we have all these resources and we’ve found them to be so successful, it didn’t make sense not to involve more people and aim for a wider impact.”