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Chinese Families and Mental Illness: The Experiences of Immigrant Chinese Women Who Provide Care to a Family Member with a Mental Illness in New York City


This dissertation is an intimate ethnography of immigrant Chinese women's experiences as caregivers to family members with mental illness in New York City. It examines how cultural ideals, the individual particularities of respondents and their ill relatives, and their interactions with institutions affect the construction and enactment of caregiving in everyday life.

Previous research on families and mental illness has predominantly been based on quantitative studies of Euro-American participants and tends to highlight the negative aspects of caregiving. Thus, this dissertation contributes to the limited qualitative research on minority caregivers. Utilizing ethnographic observations and interviews over a three-year period, the study finds that there is a strong cultural ethos of providing care to mentally ill family members, and that caregiving is often framed as a duty that is expressed through instrumental support. The enactment of these obligations and the extent of respondents' involvement in care, however, are mediated by other factors, including the willingness of the care recipient to accept help, the caregiver's competing family responsibilities, and the manageability of illness symptoms. In particular, respondents' limited English proficiency and unfamiliarity with the mental health system creates difficulties in coping and advocating that are distinct from the ones faced by Euro-American caregivers. However, using a Chinese family support group as social capital, respondents are able to meet their needs for information on etiology and treatment of mental illness; obtain practical advice on how to respond and manage difficult symptoms and situations; acquire information on community resources; and receive assistance with advocacy and emotional support.

While past anthropological inquires of mental illness have emphasized context and how individuals interpret their experiences, these studies have prioritized the subjective experience of the ill individual. As such, they have underemphasized and underexplored how mental illness can impact family members' lives and how families co-construct shared perspectives of mental illness, normalcy, and recovery. In shifting the unit of analysis away from mentally ill individuals to their family members, this dissertation illuminates the more social aspects of mental illness, and advances methodological and theoretical conceptualizations of this topic in anthropology.

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