Group holds talk on mental health stigma in Asian communities
On Thursday, Brandeis’s South Eastern Asian Club and the United Against Inequities in Disease Chapter at Brandeis discussed how mental illness is stigmatized in Southeast Asian families, at an event that was titled “Conflicts in Southeast Asia.”
After an introduction from SEAC president Amy Trankiem ’17, event coordinator Julie Ruiz ’17 read a quick summary of the documentary “Can,” discussing the journey of its main character, Can Truong.
The documentary follows Truong, one of the millions of Vietnamese refugees who fled to the United States in 1970. Having moved to Dayton, Ohio, Truong lived up to what the documentary called the “the model minority” stereotype and aspired to become a doctor until he was diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder.”
According to the film, Truong’s mental health issues dated back to high school, or perhaps even earlier in his life.
In the film, Truong’s sister noted that her brother “would be depressed when a test [was] coming out,” and that despite his struggles with schoolwork and stress, her parents never discussed it much. A woman from Truong’s community commented in the documentary that “mental illness [in our community] is a stigma. People [here] would not like to talk about it.”
In addition to facing racist comments upon his move to the United States, Truong also dealt with a strained relationship with his father, who was strict and often told Truong, “You are never good enough.” When Truong reflected on his relationship with his father in the documentary, he talked about how violent his father would be when he lost his temper. “He punished my sister and I when he lost his temper rather than [when] we did something wrong,” Truong said. According to the documentary, Truong’s father justified his violence by saying that he never complained when he was beaten by his father.
Truong was studying at Chicago University as an undergraduate when he was diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder. Upon his diagnosis, Truong’s mother moved in to care for him, but his father adopted a harsher approach, claiming that Truong was just too weak to cope with challenges independently. Failing to find sufficient support from his family, Truong joined peer support groups and sought support from others with similar experiences.
After traveling around the world and giving speeches on the importance of support for mental health issues, Truong read his father’s biography and said in the documentary that he was finally able to understand his father’s mentality. Before fleeing Vietnam, Truong’s father was a millionaire who owned a mall and several shops. He was arrested by the Communists and sentenced to death due to their suspicion of his cooperation with the CIA during the Vietnam War and, in order to survive, he gave up all his possessions and fled with his family via boat.
“He did not mean to hurt me. I could not change him. That was his personality,” Truong concluded in the documentary.
A brief discussion followed the screening. Elizabeth Villano ’16 said during the discussion that the film “did a really great job in emphasizing the cultural norm [of] older generations [as] the newer generation tries to assimilate into American society. … The way they portrayed his father was really powerful.”
One student spoke on how the film was good at “humanizing Can.” She added that “the film was nice not to completely victimize Can. But it also showed his family. … They criticized him but also supported him at the same time. Can had mental illness, [but] his family and friends see him more than that. [I felt like] the film treats him as a human.”
Another student argued that the film “makes clear that a lot of what makes the mental illness challenging is psychological isolation. It is clear that in his recovery he has some people who could empathize with him.”
The first student responded that following the Vietnam War, “a lot of the population had trauma [from] the genocide. … It is not that they don’t have mental illness; it is that they don’t recognize it themselves.”
The discussion then transitioned to a presentation on the stigma mental illness carries in society. Eva Ahmed ’16, one of the co-presidents of UAID, presented statistics on the stigma of bipolar disorder. According to her research, bipolar disorder — also known as manic-depression — is still quite misunderstood in society. She also claimed that “it is very common. There are more than three million U.S. cases a year.”
In a well-known case that Ahmed quoted, The Opinion Research Corporation Poll polled 1800 Americans on behalf of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association. Scientists found that among 1800 participants, 63 percent had a general awareness of the physiological nature of mental illness, as compared to 36 percent in 1995. According to the study, nearly 30 percent of participants maintained that those with bipolar disorder are easy to identify in the workplace, and around 19 percent argued that those with bipolar are not just like everyone else, a statement that Ahmed said “created division of us and them.”
Meisui Liu ’18, one of the co-presidents of UAID, then discussed how mental illness is represented across cultures. “Mental illness is compounded by immigration experiences, conditions leading to immigration, poverty, lack of health insurance, language difficulties, loss of support system, lack of access to traditional healers,” Liu went on to add.
She added that “Can talked about pressure from his parents because his parents depend on him to be successful. Many Asian Americans have pressure to do well.”
Liu revealed that “a lot of South Asian countries do not recognize mental illness. Like Can’s father, he did not think of it as illness. He thought it as weakness. It’s different across cultures.” Ahmed added that a feature of mental illness in Japan is that “they just want to attach a physical way of defining [illness]. So split-mind disorder, ‘Seishin Bunretsu Byo,’ was another way of trying to define what these people were going through.”
When touching on methods of combating the stigma, Ahmed emphasized that individuals should “watch your language first, then their illness.”
She urged the audience to “please don’t define people of mental illness by what they are going through because at first they are humans, always. So I think that’s a very important point to take away.”