Vietnamese refugees still affected by war

Times Staff Writer

Vietnamese Americans who came to the United States as political refugees are suffering from higher rates of mental health problems than non-Latino whites, an indication that many Vietnamese Americans are experiencing lingering effects from the Vietnam War, according to a UC Irvine Center for Health Care Policy study.

In the first analysis of its kind for Vietnamese Americans in California, researchers found that Vietnamese Americans over 55 were twice as likely as whites to report needing mental health care, but were less likely to discuss such issues with their doctors.

“The message I want to bring across is that the medical community needs to realize that Vietnamese Americans are a high-risk group,” said Dr. Quyen Ngo-Metzger, who led the survey. “I hope people realize that mental health is still a problem and not to view all Vietnamese as doing really great.”


In general, Vietnamese Americans have assimilated quickly in the United States and have achieved success in business, education and politics. The study offers a contrasting view of the tough adjustments refugees have endured.

Many Vietnamese American refugees are suffering from problems related to traumatic experiences fleeing the Communist government after the 1975 fall of Saigon, Ngo-Metzger said. Along the way, families were separated, fortunes were lost, and many who fled by small fishing boats perished at sea. Former South Vietnamese military officers left behind were sent to Communist “re-education” camps.

When they came to the U.S., many had difficulty adjusting, Ngo-Metzger said.

The first refugees to arrive in the United States in 1975 started their lives in refugee tent cities, such as Camp Pendleton. Later in the decade, the so-called boat people arrived and political prisoners made up the last wave in the 1990s.

“They already had prewar trauma, and they come to the U.S. and it’s a new country, a new language, and they have to find jobs,” Ngo-Metzger said. “What we are finding is that 30 years after the war, there are still people having problems.”

Cambodian Americans who fled after the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s experience similar mental health issues, she said.

The UCI study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, found that 21% of Vietnamese Americans said they suffered from depression or anxiety, compared with 10% among whites who participated in the 2001 and 2003 California Health Interview Surveys. Only 20% of Vietnamese Americans had a discussion with a medical provider about their mental health, compared with 45% of whites. The sample included 359 Vietnamese and 25,177 white adults, which representing the ethnic proportions of the two groups in California. The surveys were conducted by telephone.


Ngo-Metzger said mental health services for Vietnamese Americans had been lacking. She said there was a need to screen older Vietnamese Americans for mental health problems, as well as for more psychologists, social workers, therapists and psychiatrists to be aware of the issue.

In Little Saigon, home to the largest population of Vietnamese in the United States, mental health services have increased in size and funding in recent years.

The Garden Grove-based Nhan Hoa Comprehensive Health Care Clinic, which helps underserved Vietnamese Americans, started a mental health program two years ago after seeing a need for Vietnamese-targeted programs in the county. The clinic reaches out to Vietnamese Americans at grocery stores and churches, handing out Vietnamese-language brochures and urging people to seek help, said Trang Huynh, mental health program manager.

Huynh said Vietnamese Americans are wary of seeking help for mental problems because it is seen as taboo and is rarely spoken about.

“It’s a struggle,” she said. “Seeking help is more of a last resort. They don’t do it until they feel so helpless that they don’t know where else to go.”