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Ready To Feel Better?

Sonali Paul

Mike Homer and Sonali Paul, two students at Tufts University School of Medicine, were recently awarded a Helping Hands Grant from the American Psychiatric Foundation, the educational arm of the American Psychiatric Association.  The Helping Hands Grant Program provides grants for mental health service projects that are created and managed by medical students, particularly in underserved minority communities.  Taking full advantage of the unique location of the university and Tufts-New England Medical Center, the medical school’s primary teaching hospital, Mike and Sonali have begun to develop a campaign entitled “ready to feel better?” to help promote awareness and education about mental health issues in a culturally appropriate manner to both healthcare providers and community members in the Pan-Asian community of Boston.

The social stigma attached to mental illness is an unfortunate yet universal phenomenon.  This stigma is especially relevant in Asian communities, where issues of mental health are rarely discussed.  According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, while the overall prevalence of mental health disorders among Asian Americans is similar to that of other Americans, Asians have lower rates of service use in the United States.  Anxiety and depression are viewed as personal weaknesses in many traditional Asian cultures.   As a result, many refuse treatment for fear of reprisal or discrimination.  Others are afraid of being cast forever as social pariahs.  Most feel guilty about the shame that such personal realities will bring on their families.  Consequently, many suffer in silence. 

Such social stigma is further complicated by additional barriers to care that discourage racial and ethnic minorities from seeking treatment.  Nearly 50 percent of Asian Americans do not have access to culturally appropriate and adequate services [1].  Language barriers, education, and socioeconomic status are also important factors surrounding access to care.   In addition, Asian Americans may present with different symptoms of disease.  They may focus on more bodily sensations of pain and are more willing to say that they are dizzy, have a headache, feel their hearts racing or short of breath rather than admit that they feel sad, depressed, or angry. 

While it may seem like an impossible task to tackle, the Tufts medical students have based their “ready to feel better?” campaign on the simple but profound principle of education.  Students believe that education is important on both a community and healthcare level.  With increased awareness and discussion, community members should not only become familiar with these diseases, but also feel more comfortable talking about them.  They should find comfort knowing that they are not alone.  Also, doctors and nurses must be able to recognize the subtle differences of depression and anxiety in Asian Americans and provide culturally appropriate treatments.  Through an educational campaign consisting of posters, flyers, pamphlets and pins distributed throughout the community and with newspaper articles like this, Mike and Sonali hope to bring this important issue center stage so as to increase awareness and action.  

If you would like more information about this campaign, please feel free to contact Sonali at sonali.paul@tufts.edu.

[1] US Department of Health and Human Services.  Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity.  A Supplement to Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General, 2001.

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