Vietnamese Americans over 55, most who came to the United States as political refugees, report more mental health problems than non-Hispanic whites, according to a UC Irvine Center for Health Care Policy analysis of state data.
Vietnamese Americans participating in the California Health Interview Survey were twice as likely as whites to report needing mental health care but were less likely to discuss such issues with their doctor. In addition, they were more prone to have trouble functioning in their daily lives because of these problems.
While the study highlights the need for improved community mental health services, it also reveals long-standing mental health issues among older Vietnamese related to the Vietnam War and to adjusting to life in the U.S. as older immigrants, said study leader Dr. Quyen Ngo-Metzger.
“Many Vietnamese refugees who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s,’80s and ’90s suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and they continue to have mental health issues today,” said Ngo-Metzger, medicine assistant professor. “Despite this, little is still known about the health status of these older Vietnamese Americans.”
Mental health issues rarely are talked about in the Vietnamese community, added Ngo-Metzger, who studies health disparities facing Vietnamese Americans. “In fact, there’s not even a word in Vietnamese for ‘depression,’” she said, which compounds the problems.
One important step, she noted, is to make more resources available for community mental health services, which can help remove the significant resistance among older Vietnamese Americans to discussing mental health. Another step, she added, is to train primary-care physicians to properly screen older Vietnamese Americans and to direct them toward treatment.
Orange County, Calif., is home to the nation’s largest Vietnamese American community, and it is projected that by 2030 they will form the largest Asian American subgroup in California.
Vietnamese refugees have come to the U.S. in multiple waves since the end of the Vietnam War. The first arrived in 1975 when many Vietnamese with ties to the U.S. government left their country for fear of reprisals under the new communist regime. The second wave came between 1978 and 1984 with the “boat people” escaping religious and political persecution on small fishing vessels.
A third group, from 1985 to 1990, consisted of Amerasian children of U.S. servicemen and Vietnamese mothers. And a fourth and current wave of immigration began in 1990, when the U.S. government humanitarian operation allowed political prisoners recently released from labor camps to immigrate to the U.S. Many older Vietnamese adults migrated to the U.S. under this last program.
Dara Sorkin, Dr. Angela Tan, Ron Hays and Dr. Carol Mangione of UCI also worked on the study, which was supported by the National Institutes of Health and appears in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
The California Health Interview Survey is a random telephone survey of California households. For more information, see http://www.chis.ucla.edu.
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