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Asian Americans less willing to use mental health services

on December 20, 2009

According to Dr. Kotomi Ito, a counseling program supervisor with Asian Community Mental Health Services in Oakland, Asian Americans are less likely to use mental health services compared with other groups, such as African Americans.

Asians usually view mental health problem as a stigma, according to Ito. They tend to consider mental illness as shameful and as something to be kept as a family secret — which they don’t tell to strangers. “ ‘I’m not crazy’ is the first thing in their minds when thinking of mental health problems,” Ito said.

Based in Richmond and Oakland, Ito’s organization is helping the Asian American community address emotional or mental health problems through professional counseling.

Asian Community Mental Health Services (ACMHS) was established in 1974 to provide multilingual counseling and mental health resources for Asian Americans in Alameda County and Contra Costa County. It has offices in Oakland and Richmond, and offers counseling services in eight Asian languages, including Chinese, Mien, and Laotian.

Most of ACMHS’ clients are recent immigrants who are having trouble adjusting to mainstream American culture, or have stress related to their finances or social status. Many Southeast Asian immigrants still suffer from trauma from wars in their home countries, or from living in refugee camps.

Richmond is home to thousands of Southeast Asian war refugees who started arriving in the US since 1975. Laotians consist of the majority of the Southeast Asian community in Richmond. According to counselors working at the ACMHS office in Richmond, Laotians are generally not accustomed to seeking assistance for mental health problems.

Torm Nompraseurt, a community organizer with a Laotian organizing group in Richmond, says that the term “mental health issues” means being “crazy” in the Laotian language. He believes this is a barrier for Laotians to seek mental health counseling.

“The word itself already makes people resistant to go and ask for help. Because of the term and the American use of ‘mental health,’ if you go to a mental health clinic, it means you’re crazy,” Nompraseurt said.

“People talk about their stress and issues to families and our community leaders. But if you ask them to go see the mental health counselor, they say ‘No, I’m not gonna go there,’” he said.

Meyho Saephan, a counselor with the ACMHS Richmond office, said Laotians whom she had served in Richmond would turn to family members when they had personal issues or mental stress. She recalled one young Laotian couple who fighting and called all their family members from both sides to mediate the conflicts, instead of seeing a marriage counselor.

However, experts are concerned that Asians’ unwillingness to seek professional counseling may make their problems worse. Ito knows of many suicidal cases among Asian Americans in Contra Costa County and Alameda County.

“When they come to seek professional counseling, the problems are usually very severe, because they don’t use counseling services unless they have exhausted all options.” Ito said.

In order to encourage the Asian community to talk about their problems to professionals, ACMHS has done many promotion campaigns including sending out flyers, pamphlets, launching youth programs in schools, holding workshops, and participating in community festivals.

To those who come and seek help, Ito said they would try to treat them in ways that are appropriate to their Asian cultural background, and avoid treating them under western standards.

When a person denies they might have mental health problems, ACMHS walks him through the process, until he realizes that he might have a mental health problem. Sometimes the process takes as long as one year.

With more access and awareness of mental health problems, Nompraseurt is optimistic. “We have a couple of Laotian college graduates who study psychology and it’s going to be better,” he said, referring to the potential of these graduates to help Laotians in Richmond. “Because they understand how the community works and how to talk to the community.”

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