Danville Express

Newsfront - April 27, 2007

Asian mental health pros discuss Virginia tragedy

Panel agrees cultural stigma must end against mental illness

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

Everyone was shocked about the Virginia Tech killings, but many Asians were also upset to learn the perpetrator was Korean, said nine Asian mental health experts assembled Saturday to "debrief" and hear from the Asian-American community.

The panel concluded it is vital to raise awareness of mental illness; increase mental health education; and to fight the cultural stigma of mental illness in the Asian-American community.

"Asian Americans wait until they are in crisis to seek help, not when they are in the preventive stage," said Chia-Chia Chien, founder of the Culture to Culture Foundation, who assembled the panel at the Alamo Women's Club. "How can we seek help if we don't know much about mental health?"

The foundation's programs include the Chinese American Mental Health network and the Contra Costa Chinese Helpline.

"I wanted a conversation to share information with the community through bi-cultural mental health professionals," added Chien, an Alamo resident and a retired mental health clinician. "I just called them yesterday to share their clinical perspectives."

"This individual was severely mentally ill and needed a tremendous amount of services," said Frederick Y. Huang, a psychiatrist from San Francisco. "He is an indication that other people are suffering."

"This sensationalizes what mental illness looks like," he added. "My agenda is to encourage people to seek professional care."

Having depression should be as easy to admit as having a headache, one doctor said. Also, they said, people often do not have insight into their own problems and need family members and friends to make them find help.

One doctor said many Asians are against using medication.

"Resilience can be a virtue of Asian people but they suffer a lot," she said. Or they will accept medication from their primary care doctor only, because that is less shameful than taking it from a psychiatrist.

Also, it was noted that parents need to spend time with their children and pay attention to them when they are young. Immigrant parents work hard and are busy, and might miss making a connection to their children.

"I wonder how well the parents could connect with the kid," said psychologist Eddie Yu-Wai Chiu, of the Asian Family Institute, a clinic of Richmond Area Multi-Services. "We have to help children learn how to solve conflicts, how to handle their own hatred. Movies, videogames, music are educating our children to solve conflicts in a violent way."

He also noted that in the Asian culture it is OK to be quiet, to be alone and not express anger. "Sometimes we overlook signs of depression," he said.

"Bullying is a big problem," said Julie Xie, a licensed education psychologist who works in the Fremont Unified School District. "Seventy-five percent of children bullied or were bullied."

"It's almost human nature, the strong will pick on the weak," she said, so students need to be given better social skills. "We must teach them to trust themselves and stand up for themselves."

She also lamented the shortage of counselors in the schools.

"We serve three to four times as many children as recommended," she said.

"One in five students will experience serious mental health issues," she added. "It's very important for the school to provide help to protect our children."

Someone asked how much help gunman Cho Seung-Hui would have needed to have become mentally healthy.

At the point of the killings, he was psychotic, one panelist answered. With such mental illness, it is important to begin treatments early and it could entail a lifetime of treatment. "But we can control the symptoms and he would function well," she said.

ChunYu Pu, who has a psychotherapy practice in Cupertino, spoke of an awakening after the Virginia incident. She highlighted the urgent need for early mental health intervention; for family members and teachers to give support; for primary care doctors to help detect problems; the need to strengthen school counseling services; and the need to implement inpatient care and crisis intervention. She also said the community must be made aware of the services.

"Mental health is as important as physical health," she said, "and policy makers and funding entities need to seriously look at it."

"In the Asian culture, parents think through education we can make it in this society," said another psychologist. "Yes, that's true, but mental health is just as important."

"There were not only 32 victims, but the murderer was a victim of the stigma of mental illness," said Xiu Lowe, a mental health professional on the board of the Chinese American Mental Health Network. "A Stanford student recently killed herself and the parents were totally in denial. It's time to wake up."

"I joined the whole world to ask, 'How did this thing happen?'" said C. Paul Yang, an associate clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UCSF. "We're facing this danger everyday; we need to pay attention."

"This tragedy is a chance to evoke compassion," he continued, "to make the earth a better place to live."

The Chinese American Mental Health Network was begun because statistics show Asian American women have the highest suicide rate among women over age 65 as well as the second highest among women 15 to 24, and that nearly one out of two Asian-Americans will have difficulty accessing mental health treatment because they cannot find services that meet their linguistic needs.

For more information, call Chien at 831-9988.

Look for signs of trouble in youths

* Personality traits

* Social skills and behaviors

* Coping styles

* Warning signs: change of behaviors or interaction with others (e.g., isolation, frequent conflicts), depression, impulse control, impaired functioning

Source: Chunyu Pu, Ph.D.


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