Asian-Americans Shun Mental Health Care In Connecticut

May 7, 2013
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When the planes hit the World Trade Center on 9-11, clients rushed to a Hartford clinic in a panic.

They were, for the most part, Southeast Asians who’d immigrated to this country after the Vietnam War. The clients, not fluent in English and still suffering from PTSD, came in hysterics crying, “Is it happening again? Is it happening again?”

Connecticut has just one clinic funded by the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services that treats primarily Asian-Americans. The clinic, in Hartford, serves Connecticut’s Asian-Pacific community, which includes people from 21 countries who speak 35 different languages. The Office of Minority Health within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says of the Southeast Asians who seek mental health care, 70 percent have been diagnosed with PTSD.

And that’s just the people who see a doctor. By far, their peers – due to language barriers and cultural preferences – do not seek treatment, said Mui Mui Hin-McCormick, executive director of the state’s Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission. The majority of them carry the burden of war trauma and if they aren’t precisely suffering in silence, they are suffering without treatment.

“The older generation is very reluctant to access medical care,” and “the mental health stigma is very high,” Hin-McCormick said. Instead, community members often wait until there is a critical physical manifestation, and even then, they see a doctor only at the insistence of younger family members.

Ironically, the reluctance to seek care is viewed as stoicism by the greater culture, which has assigned to the Asian-Pacific community nearly superhuman powers. In 1966, American sociologist William Petersen used the term “model minority” to describe Asian-Americans who, despite facing discrimination and marginalization, had nevertheless succeeded in the U.S. The idea has long since been discredited, though Asian-Americans still find themselves facing impossible expectations.

In fact, the Super Asian ideal has been inculcated into much of the Asian-Pacific culture, as well. M. Angela Rola, director of the University of Connecticut’s Asian American Cultural Center, runs a program in which she assigns would-be mentors the task of writing about their culture. Students say it is their hardest assignment.

“It’s really heartbreaking,” said Rola. “A lot of people have bought into the model minority myth. Those kids can’t ever have a problem.”

When an Asian-Pacific American seeks treatment, Hin-McCormick says, situations unique to the community often make challenging a therapeutic session. The need for language interpretation, for example, may mean therapy does not fit neatly into a 45-minute session.

The commission recently hosted a presentation by Eliza Noh, an associate professor in California State University-Fullerton’s Asian-American studies program. According to Noh, Asian-Pacific Islander women have the second highest suicide rate between the ages of 20 and 69, and the highest for women over the age of 70. Asian-American girls between grades five and 12 have the highest rate of depression across all races and gender, and between 2000 and 2010, suicide was the second leading cause of death among Asian-American women between the ages of 15 and 24, she said.

Of the women Noh interviewed who’d survived a suicide attempt, the model minority myth was cited as a main reason for their despair.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has proposed merging the commission with other commissions charged with the oversight of the rights and protections of groups such as women, and African-Americans. Asians and Pacific Islanders are among the faster-growing minorities in the country.

Already, says commission chairman William Howe, the Asian community is the largest minority in 40 percent of Connecticut’s school districts. In this case, one-size-fits-all? Simply won’t fit.

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