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More Older Vietnamese American Seeking Help for Depression

Posted: Apr 03, 2012

Last article in series.

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif.—Tách Văn Trương walked into the waiting room of a local mental health outpatient clinic, sat down and announced to a stranger in the next chair that he was depressed.
He had been ill since 1983, he continued, adding that his depression keeps him from sleeping and he has few coping options other than physical intimacy.

“I’m sick,” he said, pausing before adding that he is seeking help.

Mental health professional and community volunteer Suzie Dong-Matsuda explained that although mental problems tends to be stigmatized among Vietnamese Americans, she is witnessing an increase in adults in midlife and older who seek help for depression among Vietnamese Americans in Orange County’s Little Saigon.

“They want to get help,” she said, adding that local Vietnamese language radio and mental health professionals are making a difference in the community by educating members about the consequences of not seeking help. “People are much more open to it now.”

“Progressive” Approach to Mental Problems

The community’s openness parallels the “progressive” approach mental health professionals take toward their patients, she continued.

Dong-Matsuda continued that she and other mental health professionals in the community separate the illness from the person. While refraining from calling patients mentally ill or depressed, Dong-Matsuda instead reminds her patients that the illness is only a part of them and can be managed.

“People can still resume responsibility in life,” she said. Dong-Matsuda said she tells her patients they can live with meaningfully, despite their depression. “They can be the person in charge of their experience.”

Dong Matsuda believes that with a doctor’s guidance, her patients should be in charge of their own treatment, allowing for more communication between the doctors and patients. By doing this, she feels her patients are more actively involved in their care and more empowered to manage their symptoms.

She recognizes that her patients in the Little Saigon community are fortunate because of their cultural network. It is difficult for Vietnamese Americans who live in areas without a large community presence to seek help, she said, because they might lack health professionals who speak their language and therefore might not even have opportunities to become educated about depression.

Alternatively, she said, living in a Vietnamese American community does not ensure education about and access to mental health care.

For example, Santa Clara County, an area in Northern California with a substantial Vietnamese population, released a 2011 report titled Status of Vietnamese Health. It shows that only one in three Vietnamese Americans who felt they needed mental health care actually saw a mental health professional.

The Santa Clara study found that the top three reasons for not visiting a mental health professional were: not knowing where to go for treatment, uncertainty surrounding their insurance coverage for treatment, and not being able to afford treatment.

Still Standing

Dong-Matsuda noted that there is a tremendous resilience in the Vietnamese American community. Religions such as Buddhism, Cao Dai, Catholicism and other Christian denominations, as well as spirituality and ancestor worship, are a few of the ways older community members cope with grief.

They also find solace by participating in annual traditions and celebrations, she added, for instance, the tradition of honoring loved ones who have died at yearly anniversaries during the Vietnamese New Year’s Tet Festivals each winter provide seniors with coping mechanisms. Such traditions, she observed, help individuals affirm and validate the Vietnamese culture along with others across generations even in the face of loss.

Unconditional familial support is also connected to the culture and helpful during periods of grief or depression, Dong-Matsuda continued, adding that families financially and emotionally support their members during difficult times.

Dong-Matsuda acknowledged that younger generations of Vietnamese Americans who grew up in the United States tend to draw boundaries between themselves and their families and to some extent even attempt to separate from their ancestral culture.

“This community has been through so much,” she said. “It can take a toll.”

Vanessa White wrote this article, the last in an ongoing series on the roots of depression in the Vietnamese community, as part of a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship program, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America. Also, read Part 1 -- “Vietnamese Elders Struggle With Depression Years After War," and Part 2 – “Historical, Generational Trauma Haunt Vietnamese Seniors in U.S."

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