Mental Health
Culturally Appropriate Services Help Families Cope With Mental Illness

or more than a century, many different Asian and Pacific Islander groups have immigrated to the United States and settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many came in search of jobs in agriculture or industry. Others arrived as refugees, fleeing wars in their native countries. Despite their different histories and experiences, these groups experience many issues such as stress caused by poverty, intergenerational conflicts around assimilation and, especially among recently arrived refugees, post-traumatic stress disorder. Access to mental health services is important if communities are to address these problems.

Since it was established 30 years ago, Asian Community Mental Health Services (ACMHS) has provided culturally specific, multilingual assistance to thousands of Asian Americans living in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. While Chinese Americans and Cambodian Americans are the most frequent clients, ACMHS’ services are provided to many diverse Asian communities in the Bay Area – in 13 different languages.

In January 2003, TCWF awarded ACMHS a three-year, $150,000 grant to provide mental health services to Asian youth and their families. With this grant, ACMHS is looking at ways to integrate its different programs to improve the effectiveness of its services. For example, by improving information systems, the agency will be able to see how its various programs may be serving members of the same family. Another effort is ACMHS’ “no wrong door” approach to integrating services. They want to ensure that regardless of how their clients seek the agency for assistance, they will be directed to mental health services that best address their needs.

“In many Asian cultures, there is a stigma attached to mental illness,” said Betty Hong, ACMHS executive director. “It is difficult for parents to acknowledge that their children are experiencing these problems. And with different conceptions of what might cause symptoms such as ‘hearing voices,’ it is not clear to them why coming here for services could help.”

For more recently arrived groups such as refugees from Laos, ACMHS has developed innovative approaches to building community trust by providing services in nontraditional ways. Laotian women who have severe clinical depression bring their children to a community victory garden for weekly gardening sessions. The gardening activity sustains links to the agricultural life they left behind and, to build social support, provides an opportunity to talk with other participants and ACMHS staff. The women also learn about sustainable farming, composting and nontoxic pest control – and they get to keep the produce they raise.

“We interweave medication compliance, child-rearing practices and skills of farming to build self-esteem and self-sufficiency,” Hong said.

Other ACMHS services include individual and group therapy sessions, substance abuse assistance and family support programs.

“ACMHS fills a critical niche in the Bay Area’s network of mental health services,” said Nicole J. Jones, TCWF program director. “Not only are staff qualified to provide long-term care, but they are equipped to address the cultural and linguistic needs of clients.”

Mental health providers like ACMHS rely on government contracts for a major source of funding, despite significant cuts in recent years. As new policies further narrow the eligibility for immigrants to access health and human services, it is possible that fewer public dollars will be available to support these programs. As a result, ACMHS’ efforts to integrate services and improve information systems become especially important.

Summer 2004

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Environmental advocacy in the Central Valley

Mental health services for Asian immigrants and refugees

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