How My Sister's Suicide Shaped My Entire Career Path

Her death turned me into a mental health advocate.

grieving woman sitting on the beach at sunset Jo Panuwat D / Shutterstock

My name is Mary Hayashi.  As a girl growing up in Korea, an Asian American immigrant, a survivor of suicide, having lost my older sister to mental illness, a women’s health advocate, and an elected official, each part of my life has provided its own set of challenges, lessons, and successes. 

But what led me to a lifetime of public service and healthcare advocacy is that I lost my older sister to suicide when she was 17. 


Early on, my parents and grandmother taught me that one of the most important virtues was being a "good girl."

 In Korea, as it is in so many Asian cultures, more than anything else, being a good girl meant keeping my mouth shut and my thoughts and opinions to myself.

Any direct communication — even direct eye contact— was discouraged. Avoiding conflict altogether was pervasive in the culture and was expected of girls. Passiveness was a natural by-product of being "a good girl."

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My sister Bo Yoon and I respected our elders, never talked back, and, for the most part, obeyed the rules. As young girls living within these parameters, I thought we were happy.

Korea is a remarkably homogenous culture, and there was no one to show us that there was another way to live. It was a simple life.

Growing up in the small town of Kwangju, I thought we were happy and close. But Bo Yoon was almost five years older than I was, and at the time, I wasn’t aware that she was having tremendous problems with depression

Depression — or really any health problem — was just not discussed in our family or culture. So because Bo Yoon’s struggle was a silent one, we were all completely shocked when on January 1, 1980, she took her own life. 


I began to understand that my sister couldn’t seek help because we were taught to keep our personal problems to ourselves.

The morning she hung herself in our room, she showed me packages of sleeping pills she had taken. 

But I was too young to help her then, and even if I had been older, I would have been held back by those around me who celebrated silence as strength. 

Now I know that our culture didn't leave room for good girls to feel so desperate or the space to express that desperation. Asking for help would only disgrace the family. 

While mental illness may impact all Americans directly or indirectly, people do not have equal access to treatment services. 


In addition, stigma and shame are believed to figure prominently in lower mental health care utilization. Encouraging a better understanding of mental illness and suicide can help reduce the stigma discouraging individuals and their families from getting the help they need. 

Suicidal ideation is a growing concern among young people today.

The recent increase in the number of children presenting to emergency rooms with suicidal thoughts highlights the urgency of addressing this issue. The Journal of Pediatrics recently published a study showing that these visits have risen by a staggering 59% in the last three years, with the percentage of children experiencing suicidal ideation increasing from 34.6% to 44.3%. This is a devastating trend that must be reversed.

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Suicidal ideation is often a symptom of underlying mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or trauma. These conditions can be difficult for children and teens to manage, especially without trusted adults' support.

The increase in the number of children presenting to emergency rooms with suicidal thoughts is a sobering reminder that suicide is a real and present danger for young people.

It is up to all of us to support those struggling and help prevent suicide.

By being aware of the signs of suicidal ideation, starting conversations with those in need, and reducing the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide, we can help ensure that all young people have access to the support they need to thrive and live healthy, fulfilling lives.


Years after discovering my independence, and forty-three years after Bo Yoon's death, it's safe to say that I am no longer the "good girl" she and I were raised to be.

I've learned to speak up for myself and others and not remain silent in the face of injustice. New generations of American women have been raised with a better message. Rather than being taught to be a "good girl," they are told it's okay to speak up. They've been taught that women can lead, too. They're actually encouraged to do so.

So in 1993, I founded the National Asian Women’s Health Organization and launched multi-year national public awareness and research education campaigns focused on Asian American women’s health issues. 

For far too many years, Asian Americans from a wide variety of cultures have been considered the “model minority.”  


Although the early 1990s were considered an exciting time for women’s health because the National Institutes of Health established the Office of Research on Women’s Health, there was very little investigation into the health crisis facing Asian Americans, largely because no one thought there was anything to investigate.  

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Before serving in the California legislature, I had the opportunity to work as the Alameda County coordinator in the winning campaign to pass Proposition 63, which provides increased funding for prevention and treatment services in the county and statewide mental health programs.

I was appointed as a commissioner on the California Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission, which was created to monitor the implementation of Prop 63.


In the California State Legislature, I authored several healthcare bills, including Assembly Bill 509, which led to the establishment of California’s Office of Suicide Prevention. And for many years, I served as a leading member of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.

Every day, each of us can help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness by being aware of and altering our behavior. 

By working to educate the public, I believe we can change the focus from staggering statistics to the great hope for prevention and recovery that exists in the mental health field today.


We need to address these inequities by changing the social, cultural, and economic status of many Americans who cannot afford access to healthcare. 

The revolution in science led to many effective treatment options for mental illness, and those treatments should benefit every American of race, ethnicity, and gender.  Everyone in need must have access to high-quality, effective, and affordable mental health services.

Hearing the call to serve as a voice for the voiceless was something that we all experience in different ways.

By writing this article, I am again choosing to use my voice. By doing so, I want to inspire other women to write their own paths and to see that we do not have to be controlled by our backgrounds, ethnicities, or family histories.


If you or somebody that you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, there is a way to get help. Call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or text "HELLO" to 741741 to be connected with the Crisis Text Line.

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Mary Hayashi, an award-winning author, is among this country’s most accomplished advocates for diversity and gender equality. She is a national healthcare leader, public affairs consultant, non-profit director, and former California State Assemblymember.