Highlighting Pioneers in Trauma-Informed Therapy for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month | The Center for Victims of Torture

Highlighting Pioneers in Trauma-Informed Therapy for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Monday, May 1, 2023

By Dr. Jean Kim, contributing writer and psychiatrist

Asian Americans are one of the largest growing minority groups in the United States, yet they remain one of the least represented in both utilization and professional representation in mental health care. Part of the issue involves an Asian cultural trend towards stigmatization, shame and keeping things “under wraps,” as well as a general lack of scientific and diagnostic understanding regarding mental health. In turn, current mental health networks in the U.S. lack sufficient awareness, training, research and representation regarding the unique psychological issues of Asian Americans. This gap in care is unfortunate given that trauma-related issues affecting mental health are particularly significant in Asian American communities: whether from recent historical issues (occupation, wars, etc.), the stress of immigration and cultural differences, patriarchal-domestic violence issues, racial discrimination as “perpetual foreigners” or other stereotypes, hate crimes in the COVID-19 era, and more. For Asian American Heritage Month, here we wish to highlight some pioneers in our community who have helped pave the way for culturally-informed, trauma-related mental health expertise and access to care for Asian Americans.

Dr. Marleen Wong, MSW: Educating Public Systems and Populations about Childhood Trauma and Mental Health

Marleen Wong, Ph.D., is currently a senior vice dean and clinical professor emeritus of social work at the University of Southern California (where she received her MSW in 1971), and executive director of Field Education and the Telehealth Clinic at USC’s Suzanne Dworak School of Social Work. She has specialized in research in childhood trauma, including being one of the founding developers of Cognitive-Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (which provided services after several major school shootings such as Columbine and Sandy Hook) and other disaster-related mental health recovery interventions for FEMA and more. She worked with several White House administrations on trauma-informed care in schools and how to educate teachers and educators in recognizing post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and more in students.

Her crucial work has helped bridge government-related resources and policies with pragmatic, first-line delivery of school-based mental health services after serious traumatic incidents and disasters, particularly for the youngest and most malleable of victims, our kids. Her social work background has uniquely equipped her to examine how to best deliver desperately needed mental health resources innovatively at a systemic level, to populations who would otherwise not receive care, such as the children of immigrants.

She mentions that immigrants and their children are often particularly in need of mental health attention, given that they often flee major stressors or violence in their former countries or remain untreated for mental health issues due to stigma. Sadly, they may bring their unresolved issues here in America or may encounter trauma again (such as gun violence). “These families just do not talk about trauma and how it impacts them, and why they become terrified to even let their children go outside.” She notes that the recent tragic mass shooting in Monterey Park may open a dialogue to educate Asian Americans about mental health and trauma, and to think about prevention as well, not just threat assessment. “We also need to look at upstream causes of violence and not just wait until it's too late and then deal with the aftermath.”

Dr. Stanley Sue: Establishing Cultural Considerations in Mental Health Care

Dr. Sue is currently a distinguished professor of psychology at Palo Alto University (with a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles) who has edited and written numerous publications and conducted research on how best to administer mental health services to culturally diverse groups. In 1972, he and his brother (another noted psychologist, Dr. Derald Wing Sue) cofounded the Asian American Psychological Association to increase awareness and psychology-related research on Asian Americans.

Dr. Sue helped pioneer attention to Asian American cultural concerns and wrote groundbreaking books and presentations emphasizing the importance of culturally competent mental health care. He addresses how traumatic racial discrimination and prejudice can be for Asian Americans from childhood onward, and how culturally specific ways of handling and expressing mental illness in families may sometimes hinder appropriate treatment for Asian Americans.

As Dr. Sue notes: “Mental distress and disorders among Asian Americans have increased dramatically, particularly because of their exposure to anti-Asian sentiments and hate in society. Yet, Asian Americans continue to underutilize mental health services. It is clear that at least two major tasks are needed to serve their interests and well-being. First, services must be staffed by bilingual-bicultural staff that can use intervention strategies that take into account the cultural, familial, and personal circumstances of the client. These will increase utilization and effectiveness of treatment. Second, Asian Americans need to develop more visibility, involvement, and influence not only in the mental health field but also in political circles, social media, and other important aspects of American life. Because of their lack of clout in these areas, Asian Americans have been ignored, misunderstood, victimized by stereotypes, and given little attention and aid.”

Dr. Larke Nahme Huang: Increasing Awareness of Culturally-Based Needs and Disparities

Dr. Huang is currently a senior advisor in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use and Director of the Office of Behavioral Health Equity (OBHE) in the U.S. Government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). She is a licensed clinical psychologist (with a Ph.D. specializing in community-based psychology from Yale) who has worked as a clinician, policy-maker and academic researcher for nearly 35 years.  

Dr. Huang has spent the majority of her multifaceted career establishing mental health policy networks and associations (such as the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association) to advocate for better and more culturally informed psychological research and care for Asian American communities, especially for children. She has taken her academic expertise into the governmental arena, helping to emphasize the importance of cultural concerns in national mental health policies, services and research. Her important activism has helped give voice to the particular needs of underserved and vulnerable communities such as Asian Americans.  

Her foundational research has helped establish guidelines for all mental health clinicians regarding developmental challenges and awareness in Asian American youth and families. As per a June 7, 2010 article in the Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, Dr. Huang noted, “Core developmental issues for these youth, such as identity formation and acculturation, are complicated by conflicting cultural values and status as a minority person of color. The negotiation of these developmental issues is often an antecedent to psychological problems. The assessment of these clinical problems is facilitated by an integrative ecological approach that bridges standard and ethnocultural assessment strategies.”

We thank Drs. Wong, Sue and Huang for their trailblazing contributions to Asian American mental health and tireless advocacy for increased awareness and education, at both the personal and policymaking level in the United States for our community. By highlighting their achievements, hopefully we can continue to better address the as-yet significant shortages in mental health care for Asian Americans. 




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