ORANGE COUNTY, Calif.—Lan Nguyen remembers being depressed when she did not pass her medical licensing exam in 1979.
She had sought a haven in Melbourne, Australia, after the Fall of Saigon — the last day of the Vietnam War. When the United States left the country, the U.S-supported South Vietnam was taken over by the Communist North, resulting in the beginning of massive emigrations of Vietnamese people.
Although Nguyen lost almost everything when she emigrated in 1975, departing with her family, the clothes she was wearing and some U.S. dollars she had been saving, she did not feel depressed about her loss and instead focused on the future.
For Nguyen, like thousands of other refugees from Vietnam, the struggle to adjust to life in a new land took an emotional toll, with effects not readily accepted in Vietnamese communities fearful of any mental difficulty.
In Nguyen’s case, failing her medical licensing exam in Melbourne triggered her depression; it meant an uncertain future.
Despite her difficulty at that time, Nguyen needed to continue functioning. Having three children to care for while studying for her medical exams, she had little time for herself or anyone else.
Fortunately, Nguyen’s friends recognized her intense depression and supported her by showing they were there for her.
Nguyen overcame her depression and said she has not felt it since 1979. She immigrated to the United States in 1981, earned her medical license and was ready to take advantage of the vast opportunities her new country had to offer.
Many older Vietnamese, who came to the United States after suffering trauma and loss in Vietnam, have focused mostly on their basic material needs and less on their emotional health, according to Suzie Dong-Matsuda, service chief of the Adult Mental Health Outpatient Asian/Pacific Islander (API) Clinics of California’s Orange County Health Care Agency Behavioral Health Services.
There is also a tendency among older Vietnamese immigrants to accept hardship and project an impression of resilience, Dong-Matsuda said. As a consequence many community members bury their grief beneath everyday tasks and struggles.
Vietnamese Depression Rate High
“The rate of depression in the Vietnamese community is very high, all due to the insecurity of displacement and adaptation of a new culture,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen added that she has not experienced hardship in adjusting to life in the United States, only the one period in Australia. But she confided that her husband is depressed, largely because of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from his being traumatized by the Fall of Saigon.
“He’s depressed, but not at the point he cannot work,” Nguyen said, adding that when he comes home, he is uncontrollably angry and unhappy.
According to the 2010 assessment of Orange County’s health needs, denial and stigma surround mental health issues, such as depression in the Vietnamese culture. For those from Vietnam and other Asian cultures, mental health issues correlate with genetic flaws in a family’s lineage, or some type of curse or punishment for a past transgression.
People with such mental health issues as depression, anxiety disorder or Alzheimer’s disease are treated as though they have no dignity and slapped with the labels, “insane” or “crazy.” They receive little help for their mental or emotional conditions and often treated poorly in the few institutions for Asians that do offer the services they need.
As a consequence of this stigma, mental health problems remain in the close-knit Vietnamese family, hidden from the community and affecting every family member.
Because of tensions concerning mental afflictions, Dong-Matsuda explained, families frequently wait until they can no longer handle the illness at home. Many seek services only when a condition is at an advanced stage, beyond the point when it could have been more easily treated.
Complicating treatment, mental health professionals commonly experience resistance from family members, who are pessimistic about results from any therapeutic intervention.
This article, first published in Vien Dong, was written by Vanessa White as part of a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship program created by New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America. It is the first in a series.