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Mental Illness in Stressful Times – An Asian American Family’s Story


Dr. Richard Nakamura: I’m basically a NIH and NIMH lifer.

Narrator: Doctor Richard Nakamura now directs the NIH’s Center for Scientific Review, where all incoming grant applications undergo initial evaluation. But for the first 33 years of his NIH career, Doctor Nakamura served in the National Institute of Mental Health. He eventually rose to the post of deputy director, acting director and scientific director. On the occasion of Minority Mental Health Month, doctor Nakamura recently confided how his own family coped with an endemic mental illness. A history intertwined with an immigrant community’s struggles during the social and economic turmoil of 20th century America.

Dr. Richard Nakamura: Even though this is painful, I like to tell this story, because mental illnesses are so stigmatized in our society and particularly in the Asian community. Let me go back to my grandfather who came from Japan at the turn of the Century.  He settled in the Yakima Valley. Was one of the first leaseholders there. It started as a complete desert. They turned it into a garden. Their success was such that there came to be resentment. The Japanese Americans within the Valley were forced out.  They ultimately moved to California. So my grandfather -- with at that time, 4 children and a spouse -- moved to California, where they resumed farming in a somewhat friendlier climate. However, partly because of some of the things he went through and perhaps because of early signs of the mental illness that would affect the rest of the family, in the mid-30s he completed a suicide. And my father, unfortunately, as a teenager, had to find him and cut him down. Despite this disaster, the family and what were then 6 siblings stuck together with my grandmother and managed to successfully continue farming until World War II. When then like all the other Japanese in California were put in concentration camps, as enemy aliens. These events were thought to have been the original source of the stressors that led to mental illness in 4 of these children -- severe bipolar illness in 4 of these children. But it’s since be come clear that it wasn’t just that. It was likely to be a genetic disease, because several other members of the family have since developed bipolar illness. Some of my aunts would disappear for periods of time. We were told they were “on vacation” or visiting someone, when they were actually hospitalized. And the first time I had a serious discussion about this was after my father had a severe bipolar episode and had to return from a sabbatical in Japan to be treated in San Francisco. I was asked to come and help out my mother while he was undergoing treatment. Then I was finally told about the history of the family, about my grandfather’s suicide. And how it’s affected other sisters within the group. Despite the fact that many individuals end up hospitalized or in jail and have their lives completely wrecked by these diseases, the family stuck together. Four of the children went on to complete college. My father went on to complete a Ph.D. And even after he started having manic-depressive episodes, my father was able to become a full professor economics at Columbia University. Similarly, his sisters, who also developed the disease, were, in their own ways able to achieve, make accomplishments. One was a pathologist and one was a teacher. The mutual support within the family has been absolutely critical. And is seen by everyone as the key to the family’s success.  Having this kind of problem motivates you. Makes you more sympathetic to others, because you can understand why they may be struggling. The difference in outcomes for us in having mental illnesses successfully treated has meant our whole family has been able to succeed in a terrific way. And we can make significant contributions to our society.