Drug & Alcohol Addiction Among Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders

Substance use disorder is a complex condition that impacts everyone, but the needs of some groups of people are often overlooked. If you’re an Asian American or Pacific Islander, what do you need to know, and what resources are available to you?

Often, people refer to the United States as a melting pot of people with various heritages and cultures. Although a large portion of the demographics consists of Caucasians and African Americans, the fourth largest population group consists of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. When combined, they account for 6.1% of the total U.S. population, according to 2019 estimates of the U.S. Census Bureau.

Like other groups, this group of people isn’t spared from mental health conditions such as substance use disorder and other co-occurring disorders. Addiction can affect anyone, regardless of their gender, age, income, or social or ethnic background.

Addiction Among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

According to the U.S. Substance Use Disorder and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 4.9% of the total Asian American and Pacific Islander population is in need of drug or alcohol rehabilitation. However, they are one of the groups least likely to receive adequate care. There is a 5.3 % chance that an Asian American or Pacific Islander won’t receive substance use disorder treatment as compared to other ethnic groups.

Additionally, many of the people who didn’t receive treatment believed that they didn’t need any kind of intervention at all. Among the group who objectively needed treatment, 97.9% believed that their addiction problem did not warrant medical attention.

Here are some notable facts and figures:

  • Asian Americans were 4.1% of the total U.S. population in need of substance use disorder treatment.
  • Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders (NHOPIs) accounted for 15.1% of the population in need of addiction treatment.
  • 24.7% of NHOPIs and 12.4% of Asian-Americans engaged in binge drinking within the past 30 days, according to a 2013 survey.

These statistics show that there is an alarming rate of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who have addictions and need treatment. Providing equal access to information and medical care is vital.

Risk Factors for Substance Use Disorder

Interestingly, some of the risk factors for substance use disorder among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are different from people of other backgrounds. If you suspect an addiction problem in yourself or a loved one in these communities, there are some risk factors you might want to look for:

Ethnic culture

Some Asian American and Pacific Islander groups emphasize alcohol or drug use more. This emphasis could create a higher risk of substance use disorder.

One specific example is the use of cannabis (marijuana) by young Pacific Islanders. This use relates to the relaxed “hang loose” culture sometimes promoted on the Hawaiian islands and the fact that many people consider cannabis to be less harmful than other drugs.

Family culture

Aside from the overall ethnic culture, family culture can be a risk factor for substance use disorder. According to researchers, members of Asian communities are more likely to develop drinking or drug habits when they are exposed to a family culture of drinking alcohol or taking drugs.

Peer perceptions

The influence of peers is another possible risk factor among Asian American and Pacific Islander populations. For example, Asian college students with peers who drink or use drugs are more likely to exhibit the same behaviors and carry them through adulthood.

History of mental health disorders

Another study examined Asian mothers and their daughters. It found that females who have a family history of depressive symptoms were most likely to drink alcohol and take drugs. Other co-occurring mental health issues such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and mood and personality disorders are also related to increased risks for substance use disorder.

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Myths and Misconceptions Affecting the Communities

There are various misconceptions about the Asian American and Pacific Islander groups regarding addictions. They come from both inside and outside the communities.

Myths within the communities:

  • For some communities in these groups, mental illnesses and addictions are taboo subjects. Some Asian Americans are afraid to come forward about their conditions because their communities place a considerable emphasis on reputations. Among some East Asian cultures, some individuals would rather “save face” and maintain specific appearances than admit that they have substance use disorder issues.
  • Some Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders may feel that no one else in their groups is having the same experiences. Although this misconception occurs in other demographics, Asians and Pacific Islanders may feel this more intensely because of the high expectations they may have for themselves and others in their communities. For example, Japanese people’s high expectations of themselves may make prompt some people to isolate themselves, such as the case of hikikomori, people who shut themselves away from the world.
  • There is also the belief that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders don’t have assistance available that can address their specific needs. Because the percentage of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders with addictions is smaller compared to other demographic groups, members of these communities may think that there is no specific care for their group. But there are high-quality rehab centers and programs that can provide assistance.

Myths from outside the communities:

  • There’s a belief that Asian American and Pacific Islander communities don’t need assistance as much as people with other ethnic backgrounds. Since the percentage of people in this demographic with substance use disorders is smaller, people may assume that they don’t need help as much as others. This is not true and it could deter people from seeking help. In fact, these assumptions could minimize the severity of their problems and make them difficult to spot.
  • Some people believe that Asian American and Pacific Islanders have less severe addictions and mental illnesses compared to people of other ethnic backgrounds. Other common and false stereotypes about Asian Americans is that they are meek and assimilate into other cultures without any problems, but such perceptions are stereotypes, not the truth. Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are diverse and complex.

To receive information and resources, people in these communities should be aware of these misconceptions and how they may deter people from finding the life-saving treatment they need.

Co-Occurring Mental Illnesses Among Asian Americans

According to a 2014 study, the most common co-occurring mental health disorders among Asian Americans include:

Anxiety disorders

The most common anxiety disorders among Asian Americans are panic disorder, agoraphobia, social anxiety, and generalized anxiety disorder.

Mood disorders

Major depressive disorders account for a large percentage of co-occurring mental illnesses among Asian American populations. Although less common, persistent depression disorder (dysthymia) occurs in 2% of the people in these groups.

Other mental health disorders

In addition to mood and anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), personality disorders, and eating disorders also exist in 18% of the sample population in the 2014 study.


Cultural Barriers to Treatment

As previously mentioned, there are cultural insinuations that prevent Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from finding the help they need. Often, these cultural barriers are related to culturally ingrained mindsets that may be hard to break:

  • Protecting their image and demonstrating that they are successful are associated with the concept of “saving face” in some Asian American and Pacific Islander cultures.
  • Worrying about being a burden is common in this demographic. Members may worry that they’re burdens if they disclose their mental health and substance use disorder problems. Even if their family and peers don’t express these views, people may assume that sharing these problems will cause others to worry about them.
  • Having hesitations due to religious beliefs may occur. Some people within the communities may think that their disorders are spiritual in nature, which means that seeking medical help isn’t necessary. But they may find treatment that incorporates science and spirituality. This treatment honors an individual’s needs and respects their religious background.

These cultural barriers are similar to misconceptions, and treatment professionals and individuals from these groups could educate themselves about these perspectives. Discussing such issues can help Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders become more open and receptive to addiction treatment and other options.

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How Can Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Find Help for Addiction Disorders?

While there may be myths and barriers that may prevent Asian American and Pacific Islander communities from seeking drug and alcohol rehabilitation, there are also resources to help people learn about and treat substance use disorder.

Finding high-quality rehab centers with diverse treatment options

An ideal rehab center for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is a center with a multitude of treatment options. The variety of options can help people receive custom-tailored treatment that considers and respects their cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

Learning information about drug and alcohol addiction

Asian American and Pacific Islander drug and alcohol addiction may be more common than many people think. Although statistics show a lower percentage of addiction in these communities, there may be a larger percentage of people within the communities who are hesitant to come forward due to stigma and cultural barriers.

Organizations such as the National Asian Pacific American Families Against Substance Use Disorder (NAPAFASA) demonstrate that there are resources available for members of these communities to learn more about mental health conditions and substance use disorders and how they relate to their cultures.

Encouraging family and friends

Do you know a member of an Asian American or Pacific Islander community who exhibits signs of addiction? Consider helping them find assistance right away. They may have been thinking of finding treatment but may only need a little encouragement from the people that matter to them the most.

If people are struggling with addiction, their loved ones may also consider holding interventions to make them aware of their problems and to help them commit to addiction treatment.

Culture Shouldn’t Be a Hindrance to Sobriety

In a country as diverse as the United States, culture shouldn’t be a hindrance to treatment. Instead, it should be a tool to show compassion and understanding. Although people have different backgrounds, their cultural uniqueness provides opportunities to listen and to find solutions to treat addiction and other problems.


  • census.gov –  QuickFacts: United States
  • samhsa.gov – Need for and Receipt of Substance Use Treatment Among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
  • samhsa.gov – Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings
  • ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Substance Use Behavior Among Early-Adolescent Asian American Girls: The Impact of Psychological and Family Factors
  • bbc.com – The plight of Japan’s modern hermits
  • samhsa.gov – Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings
  • theguardian.com – Being a good, quiet and assimilated model minority is making me angry
  • ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Lifetime Prevalence of Mental Disorders Among Asian Americans: Nativity, Gender, and Sociodemographic Correlates
  • tripsavvy.com – Saving Face and Losing Face
  • napafasa.org – Resources
  • onlinelibrary.wiley.com – Cannabis use among young people in Pacific Island Countries and Territories
  • ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Differences in Substance Use and Substance Use Risk Factors by Asian Subgroups

Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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