Saisana Khantisouk* is a casually dressed man in his sixties who talks animatedly about his attempts to quit smoking. You’d think this was a common story, until you realize that he’s been smoking for 40 years, fought in the American war in Laos, and because of the terrors he witnessed, suffers from severe depression.
These challenges are typical for the clients participating in Asian Counseling and Referral Service’s new program, Wellness for Asian Pacific Americans (WAPA). Only 15 percent of the participants have access to regular dental care and 60 percent are regular smokers. Sixty percent also have a family history of diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease. Depression is the most common mental diagnosis, followed by post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar.
These patients are most at risk for major health problems; and indeed according to ACRS, people with a serious mental illness die on average at age 53.
Khantisouk says he felt a lot better after just a couple of visits with his doctor through WAPA. That’s because it’s an integrated system of primary health services and wellness education, tailored specifically for APA individuals with limited English and serious mental illness.
“I’m quitting smoking on my own and stopped drinking beer,” says Khantisouk. “I used to drink beer on the weekends. After seeing the doctor and seeing that my blood pressure was very high, I realized I wanted to live longer and be healthier, so I’m trying to quit smoking now.”
This type of integrated treatment, which advises patients on how to take care of themselves physically, mentally and holistically, seems to be working well. Khantisouk says he likes having his physician and his therapist all in one place. And, he enjoys the regular, senior exercises and Lao dancing that ACRS offers.
The goals of WAPA are to increase access to regular health screening, and reduce preventable chronic diseases through wellness education. The information given in this wellness education program may be common knowledge for more affluent American communities, substantially increasing their ability to avoid common, preventable health problems such as breast cancer. But the need to educate and treat at-risk individuals in the APA community is high. People with serious mental illnesses tend to partake in unhealthy practices such as smoking, substance abuse, not exercising and poor nutrition.
“These patients face a lot of challenges. Most importantly, they face both mental health and language/cultural challenges,” says Dr. Dan Copp who treats patients through International Community Health Services. “Either of these are barriers to health care; together they are very dangerous.” Through ACRS’s partnership with International Community Health Services, a family doctor comes to ACRS once a week to serve clients, and help overcome barriers to receive health care services.
Yoon Joo Han, a behavioral health program coordinator at ACRS, says, “By offering comprehensive wellness and health education services, we can support activities to promote a healthier and happier life.”
The wellness ethic is instilled in Khantisouk. He says that when he is feeling depressed, he goes for a walk, takes in a beautiful view and dwells on the present, rather than the past. When his depression takes over and he starts to fixate on his need to have a cigarette, he walks away from where he is and tries to forget about it. Despite the fact that he fought in the war, was separated from his wife and young children and “witnessed a lot of killing,” he refuses the crutch of more than half a cigarette a day, for the sake of his own health. Clearly, the commitment to health has been awakened.
Other problems—the economy, his children’s unstable financial situation, his wife’s illness and wanting to save up to see his brother and sister in Laos—still weigh on his conscience. But now he has access to the tools and services he needs, and perhaps more importantly, has ignited the will within himself to live a happy, healthy life.
For more information on joining, or referring someone to ACRS’s Wellness for Asian Pacific Americans program, call (206) 695-7511, or e-mail [email protected].
*We have honored the clients’ requests not to use their real names in this article.