April 20th, 2009
Minorities and Mental Health
An injured occupant is carried out of Norris Hall at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., Monday, April 16, 2007. A gunman opened fire in a dorm and classroom at Virginia Tech, killing 21 people before he was killed, police said. (AP Photo/The Roanoke Times, Alan Kim)

It was the deadliest shooting incident by a single gunman in U.S. history.

On April 16, 2007, a senior at Virginia Tech University opened fire on the Virginia campus, killing 32 people before taking his own life.

The tragedy not only shook the nation; it also called into question the availability, and efficacy, of mental health services for minorities. Although the shooter, Korean student Seung-Hui Cho, had been referred to psychological counseling for symptoms of mental illness, he did not get sufficient help. And although his example is extreme, experts use it to highlight what they see as a common problem: insufficient mental health care for immigrants.

“He (Cho) was referred to care and he went, but he never followed up,” says Nola Zane, Director of the Asian American Center on Disparities Research at the University of California Davis, a government-funded initiative launched in the months after the massacre at VA Tech. “This is not uncommon. Only about 28 percent of Asian Americans with mental illness seek help, because they are ashamed, afraid, and also concerned about how, if people find out they have mental illness, it would reflect on their family.”

A 2005 study by the Asian American Psychological Association showed that when Asian Americans do come for counseling, they show higher levels of psychological distress compared to other groups, in most cases because they have delayed seeking treatment for so long. And relative to other minority groups, Asian Americans spend the least time in treatment.

The problem is not confined to the Asian-American community. Studies have shown that several minority groups are much less likely to receive needed mental health services than whites, and that when treatment is sought, it’s often poor quality.

Some of the more troubling findings by the government’s Office of Minority Mental Health include:

  • The suicide rate among African American adolescents, once uncommon, has increased sharply.
  • Suicide attempts for Hispanic girls, grades 9-12, were 60 percent higher than for White girls in the same age group, in 2005.
  • While the overall death rate from suicide for American Indian/Alaska Natives is comparable to the White population, adolescent American Indian/Alaska Natives have death rates two to five times the rate for Whites in the same age groups. And in 2005, suicide was the second leading cause of death for American Indian/Alaska Natives between the ages of 10 and 34.
  • Almost half of all Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders with mental health problems will confront language barriers when seeking care

“We have no idea whether, even if someone reaches out to an immigrant with mental health issues, whether the care will be appropriate for them,” Zane says. “A lot of immigrant families don’t feel comfortable turning to counseling services because there might not be someone there who will understood them and some of the unique cultural issues they face.”

According to a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, immigrant children are at heightened risk when it comes to mental health treatment. Why? For some it’s the psychological trauma of getting to America. For others it’s the struggle to assimilate, and feelings of discrimination – whether real or not – because of ethnic minority status. The study also found parents of immigrant children often have to move around a lot for work – leaving them little time to help their kids adjust to schools or their community. Combine those things with the ordinary challenges of adolescence and it’s a recipe for trouble: the study found these kids at increased risk for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.


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