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Traditional Chinese Medicine And Mental Health 

Traditional Chinese Medicine And Mental Health

Two Centipedes for Sadness, Please

The day after my father’s funeral, I awoke with steel knuckles twisting the insides of my abdomen. Waves of nausea and pain rolled over me as I struggled to the bathroom, yet as I curled around the toilet I expunged nothing but the piercing sadness of the last couple of months. When my mom found me, coated in a sheen of sweat on the bathroom floor, she immediately called the doctor and made an appointment. The symptoms turned out to be the menstruation cramps of the turbulent arrival of my period, though neither my mother nor I had ever experienced such pain before.

In the freezing January wind, we trekked through the Chinatown streets and stopped at an herbal medicine shop. It was my first time visiting a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner and I initially had my qualms about the visit, but my mother urged me to keep an open mind. In the consultation room, the doctor took my pulse and looked at my tongue very seriously for a few minutes. When he asked questions about my symptoms, my mom answered for me, though I speak fluent Mandarin.

The first thing my mother mentioned was that I had lost someone very close to me and that I was undoubtedly feeling upset. It was the first time she had acknowledged the emotional turmoil that my father’s death caused, and it left me baffled. Why would she mention it in a grimy room to an herb doctor trying to “fix” my cramps? To me, they were entirely separate entities, yet my mother and the doctor clearly believed they were entwined.

The doctor gave a recipe to the pharmacist, who measured out the ingredients that would be brewed into an herbal tea. The roots, grasses, and leaves he had separated into neat piles seemed standard, but my heart sank as he placed two dried centipedes into a pile. I drank the bitter broth for three days as prescribed, and the cramps promptly disappeared.

Traditional Chinese medicine and the attitudes towards mental health, the link between Asian households and more Western viewpoints.
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on

Traditional Chinese Medicine and Mental Health

In America, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is classified as complementary medicine, one that is ancient and lacking a scientific basis. Some liken it to drinking potions, insinuating the presence of witchcraft and sorcery; others dismiss it as inferior to Western medicine. In reality, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a type of medicine that dates back thousands of years. The field is rooted in herbal medicines, massages, an exercise called qigong, and acupuncture; its tenets revolve around the concept of vital body energy called Qi. Whether you swear by an ancient herbal brew for curing headaches or view it as a scheme run by money-hungry mongers, analyzing TCM is an important bridge to understanding Chinese-American mental health attitudes.

I am not here to argue the potency of the medicine or legitimize the practice; I want to understand how thinking in the TCM framework affects Chinese parents’ attitudes towards mental health. Chinese culture is known for its stoicism and harsh honesty. Characteristics that leave no room for raw, vulnerable emotion. Chinese parents often seem indifferent to mental health and wellness, especially when their children bring it up.

Traditional Chinese Cultural Attitudes About Mental Health

What reason could their American children possibly have for being upset? They were born with silver spoons in their mouths filled to the brim with the nurturing broth of security and love. They never wanted food or school supplies, and they took the bus to school instead of walking 4 kilometers there and back. In addition, the subject is often taboo and there is a lack of education about American attitudes and resources for mental health.  

Perhaps the issue is not as simple as legitimizing mental health for Chinese parents. When my mother mentioned my father’s death and my sadness to the doctor, I realized that Chinese parents can talk about emotions, just not the way it is popularized and taught in American society. Chinese medicine embraces the interconnectedness of the body as a whole, believing that physical symptoms are a result of disharmony and imbalance.

Western medicine separates the body and mind and further compartmentalizes medicine, whereas the mind and body are viewed holistically in Chinese medicine. Thus, to my mother, there was no reason to talk about my “feelings” as a singular entity. My dad died, and obviously, I was upset.

There was an internal imbalance in my Qi because feeling sad and standing in the freezing cold for the funeral service had robbed me of my warm energy. The doctor explained that I had too much han, or cold energy, and needed to introduce some warmth into my body (hence the centipedes). This explanation made much more sense to my mother than the Western view of mental health, where the mind is a dark, mysterious labyrinth often talked about as though it is disconnected from the rest of the body.

The stigmas against mental health in Asian-American societies are very well-documented — researchers cite a lack of education, lack of resources, and cultural and familial values, among others, as reasons why few Asian Americans seek treatment. These reasons are valid. However, Americans fail to readjust their lenses and accept alternative explanations for why Western mental health concepts are stigmatized.

Mental health is extremely prevalent in traditional Chinese medicine. It is considered a part of a holistic person, so people do not view it as Westerners do. There is just a little stigma against mental health, just stigma against the Western view of mental health, among most Chinese parents. This often translates to the ignorance and indifference that is characteristic of parents when their children talk about depression or anxiety. In reality, however, they may simply just be on two different wavelengths that are equally valid.  

What Can Asian-Americans Do?

Though I examined only traditional Chinese medicine as an alternative frame for mental health and wellness, this method can be applied to other Asian cultures that seemingly reject and stigmatize mental health. For a long time, I felt I would be admitting weakness and disappointing my mother if I told her about my sadness and anxiety. I soon realized that I could talk to her about those emotions if I just tried to remove them from a Western context. Asian-Americans can try to explain their feelings and struggles through the lens of their parents or family members if they fear stigma.

Perhaps there is a religious or spiritual philosophy that incorporates mental health that their parents would better understand. While I may not agree with my mother’s views on mental health, my explanations have made us both closer. I would rather have her understand my feelings in her own way than keep that part of myself hidden from her. Viewing my sadness from her perspective, even for a minute, gave me the courage and structure to frame my feelings in a way that strengthened our relationship. This is what American researchers and mental health advocates need to understand and do when working to “destigmatize” mental health among different groups.

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