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Mental health aid elusive for some immigrants

Sunday, April 12, 2009

One in four American adults suffers from a diagnosable mental health disorder, according to the National Institutes of Health. For many of them, help of some sort is available, sometimes free or on a sliding-fee basis for the un- or under-insured.

But not all who can benefit from such services seek them - and that's particularly true among those just settling into America.

"For immigrants, there are a lot of cracks in the system," pointed out Cultural Diversity Director Doris Cheung of the Mental Health Association of the Southern Tier. "They may not have good health insurance, may not see a physician who can point them toward proper services. And mental health is a big taboo for a lot of cultures."

Vietnamese and Chinese - the two cultures of suspected American Civic Association shooter Jiverly A. Wong - are among the ethnic groups who won't generally talk about mental health issues, she said. Others include East Indians, Haitians, Hispanics, Mexicans and Russians, which are well represented in the local immigrant population.

Their beliefs are behind their reticence, Cheung said.

"Some believe (mental illness) is God's punishment, others believe it's karma for having lived a bad life in the past and some believe in supernatural causes, for example evil spirits," she said.

Language, too, is a powerful barrier. It's sometimes difficult enough to access services when English is someone's first language. But needing to make multiple phone calls to set up appointments may be beyond an immigrant's ability.

MHAST does what Cheung feels all mental health agencies must do: "Reach out to those groups and prove that you can serve them; if they can't be understood at the grocery store, they may not trust they'll be understood by mental health providers."

She and a team of five MHAST interpreters who speak Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Spanish, Japanese, Bosnian, Russian, Serbian, Polish, Laotian and Thai rushed to Catholic Charities when they first heard news of the April 3 massacre at the civic association in Binghamton.

They knew friends and families would want information about their loved ones but might be unable to understand English.

The interpreters were able to help at that time, and stand ready to help anyone who may need mental health services but cannot speak English.

Call MHAST at 771-8888 for more information.

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