Helping Philadelphia's Asian Community Overcome the Stigma of Mental Illness

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Newswise — David Chu (not his real name), a native of Vietnam arrived in Philadelphia with his family in 1980 at the age of three with little knowledge of the language or region. The family brought with them the view that mental illness is something other than a medical condition, a largely Asian notion.

"Many Asian cultures use herbs to manage the symptoms of mental illness, never getting to the root cause of the problem," says Helen Luu, Director of the Asian Behavioral Health program at Hall-Mercer Community Mental Health Center, part of Pennsylvania Hospital. "Mental health and behavioral issues are not recognized as medical problems in many Asian cultures. Medication and hospitalization are a last resort, if available." Family members are often shunned or hidden from the public if they are believed to have a mental or behavioral illness.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 20, David Chu's mental illness was difficult for his family. "I was found in a local park, confused and wandering aimlessly," he says. After multiple hospitalizations, David was accepted into the Asian Behavioral Health program.

On Friday, February 1, the program will mark its 20th anniversary with lion dancing and a luncheon panel to recognize leaders who have shaped this groundbreaking outreach program. Events will be held in Hall-Mercer Community Mental Health Center, 245 South Eighth Street, Philadelphia from 11:30 to 2:30 pm.

The program consists of a multilingual team of five case managers providing social rehabilitation, translation services, case management, counseling, psychiatric services, and community outreach specifically designed for the Asian population. Case managers help bridge language and cultural barriers, working with clients from Hong Kong, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Indonesia. The program currently has about 260 active clients, ranging in age from 18-80.

The program at Hall-Mercer has been successful in working with clients to alter many common beliefs and practices.

For David Chu and his family, the program offered the specialized support needed. "My case manager showed me how to accept my illness, be compliant in taking my medication, and to maintain open communication with my doctors," explains Chu.

His case worker, fluent in Vietnamese, was also instrumental in explaining his illness to his parents, who carry a much stronger shame around mental illness from their Vietnamese upbringing. The case manager explained to his parents, who speak limited English, that David's illness is a chronic medical disease requiring long-term treatment.

After three years in the program, Chu is stabilized, taking his medication and holds a steady job. "My parents still have a hard time accepting my illness, but have a greater understanding as a result of my involvement in the Asian Behavioral Health program. Right now, my mom is more open and understanding than my dad," he points out. "But I hope that will change over time."

"Helen Luu and the Asian Behavioral Health program helped put my parents at ease, and helped me to form a new life for myself with a mental illness."

About Pennsylvania Hospital
Pennsylvania Hospital " the nation's first " was founded in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Thomas Bond. Today, the 515-bed acute care facility offers a full-range of diagnostic and therapeutic medical services and is a major teaching and clinical research institution. With a national reputation in areas such as orthopaedics, cardiac care, vascular surgery, neurosurgery, otorhinolaryngology (ENT) and urology as well as obstetrics, high-risk maternal and fetal services, neonatology, and behavioral health, the campus also includes specialty treatment centers such as the Joan Karnell Cancer Center, the Center for Bloodless Medicine and Surgery and the PENN Neurological Institute. The hospital has over 25, 000 admissions each year, including over 4,600 births. Pennsylvania Hospital is part of the University of Pennsylvania Health System and is located in the historic Society Hill district of Philadelphia.