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Coping With Familial Mental Illness in Stressful Times

“NIH/NIMH lifer” Shares His Asian American Family’s Story of Resilience

Science Update


Richard Nakamura, Ph.D.

Former NIMH Deputy Director and Scientific Director, Dr. Richard Nakamura, recently revealed how his family successfully coped with discrimination compounded by bipolar disorder during trying times for Japanese Americans. In a video interview marking National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, the current director of NIH’s Center for Scientific Review  stressed the critical roles of mutual support and treatment.

Though painful, Nakamura said he likes to share his family’s story because “mental illnesses are so stigmatized in our society, and particularly in the Asian community.”

At the turn of the 20th Century, Nakamura’s grandfather left Japan and settled in the Yakima Valley in the state of Washington, as one of the first lease holders in a rapidly growing agricultural community. However, with neighbors resenting their success, Japanese immigrants were forced to leave. The family moved to California and resumed farming. But during the Great Depression in the mid 1930’s, his grandfather died by suicide. Despite this tragic loss, the family stuck together and managed to continue farming until World War II, when Japanese-Americans were relocated to detention camps as “enemy aliens.”

For a time, these traumatic events were thought to be root causes of bipolar disorder in four of the family’s six children, including Nakamura’s father. But it eventually became clear that genetic factors also likely played a role, since family members who didn’t experience such traumatic life events have since developed the disorder.

Nakamura recalled being told occasionally as a child that his aunts were “on vacation.” He learned only much later that, in fact, they had been hospitalized for their bipolar illness. The first time he became aware of his family history of mental illness and his grandfather’s suicide was as a young adult, when his father had to return from a sabbatical in Japan for psychiatric treatment.

“This was both a surprise and also a sense of discovery about how what could be a devastating illness can be worked with and dealt with in a strong family environment,” Nakamura said.

Despite bipolar episodes, Nakamura’s father, with treatment, earned a Ph.D. and became a full professor of economics at Columbia University. Two of his sisters also had successful careers, one as a pathologist and another as a teacher.

Having firsthand experience with mental illness makes one more sympathetic to others’ struggles, said Nakamura, who added that he feels greatly privileged to have had the opportunity to help shape the field of mental health and to make a difference to those with mental illness.

*Asian-Americans, the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S., face significant disparities in accessing mental health services.

*Compared to other racial and ethnic groups, Asian-Americans with depression are more likely to visit emergency rooms or inpatient psychiatric hospitals when their symptoms intensify.

*Early detection and early and ongoing access to psychiatric treatment are crucial for leading enriching lives.


Humes KR, Jones NA, Ramirez RR. Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010. Suitland, MD: U.S. Census Bureau, 2011 March. Report No.: C2010BR-02. 

Lee SY, Xue QL, Spira AP, Lee HB. Racial and ethnic differences in depressive subtypes and access to mental health care in the United States. J Affect Disorders. 2014;155:130-7.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Racial/Ethnic Differences in Mental Health Service Use among Adults. HHS Publication No. SMA-15-4906. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2015.


Su Yeon Lee-Tauler, Ph.D., Scientific Program Lead in Mental Health Disparities Research at Office for Research on Disparities and Global Mental Health contributed to this scientific update.