ORANGE COUNTY, California—Mrs. Lan Nguyễn remembers being depressed when she did not pass her medical licensing exam in 1979.
She had sought haven in Melbourne, Australia upon the Fall of Saigon, which was 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 Mrs. Nguyễn had lost almost everything when she emigrated in 1975, leaving 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.
Yet, failing her medical licensing exam while in Melbourne did cause her depression as it meant an uncertain future for Mrs. Nguyễn.
She describes that period of time as very difficult, though it was necessary for her to continue functioning.
Having three children to take care of while studying for her medical exams, Mrs. Nguyễn had little time for herself or anyone else. Fortunately, her friends recognized her need and supported her by showing they understood and were there for here.
Mrs. Nguyễn overcame her depression and says 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.
Living in United States after suffering trauma and loss in Vietnam, many Vietnamese Americans focus mostly on their basic material needs and less on their emotional health, according to Dr. Suzie Dong-Matsuda, who is Service Chief I of the Adult Mental Health Outpatient API Clinics of the Orange County Health Care Agency Behavioral Health Services.
There is also a tendency within the community to accept hardship and project resilience, causing community members to bury their grief under their everyday tasks and struggles.
“The rate of depression in the Vietnamese community is very high, all due to the insecurity of displacement and adaptation of a new culture,” Mrs. Nguyễn told the Viễn Đông, adding that she has not experienced such hardship in adjusting to life in the United States.
She continued, saying that though she is not depressed, her husband is and covers up or does not feel his depression while at work.
When he comes home, though, he is uncontrollably angry and unhappy.
Mrs. Nguyễn said her husband is depressed as a result of suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as he was severely traumatized due to the Fall of Saigon.
“He’s depressed, but not at the point he cannot work,” she said.
Mrs. Nguyễn’s husband’s masking of his depression is common among Vietnamese Americans, many of which also hide the illness out of shame.
Traditional views surrounding depression
According to a 2010 Orange County Health Needs Assessment (OCHNA) report called, “A Look at Health in Orange County’s Vietnamese Community,” there is denial and stigma surrounding mental health issues such as depression within the Vietnamese culture.
Still a cultural belief in Vietnam, mental health issues correlate with genetic flaws in the family lineage, or some type of curse or punishment for a past transgression.
People with mental health issues are treated as though they have no dignity and slapped with the labels of “insane” or “crazy.”
They receive little help for their mental health issues as they are often treated poorly in the limited institutions that do offer the services they need.
As part of the Vietnamese culture, mental health issues remain in the close-knit family, hidden from the larger community and affecting every family member.
Such a connection can create tension within the family, according to Dr. Dong-Matsuda.
Only after the mental health issue cannot be handled at home do family members usually seek mental health services.
At that point, mental health professionals experience resistance from family members who are pessimistic about treatment results.
Thoughts to considerHow do community members define depression? Is it a serious illness or concern within the community?