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Advocates Push for Better Mental-Health Care for Asian New Yorkers

Korean Community Services, which provides mental-health services, in Queens. PHOTO: BYRON SMITH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The case last month of an allegedly mentally-ill Asian woman charged with stabbing several people has highlighted what advocates say is a troubling insufficiency in mental health care services for New York City’s growing Asian population.

The system is hampered by a shortage of culturally fluent providers, wait times that can stretch to weeks and a lack of adequate governmental funding, the advocates say.

The city’s ThriveNYC program—a focus of Chirlane McCray, the wife of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio—is important in raising awareness but lacks programs that meet the unique cultural needs of Asian New Yorkers, advocates say. The city’s crisis helpline isn’t something many Asian New Yorkers would use, Ms. Yoo said.

“Nobody is offering any solutions,” said Ms. Yoo. “Very little investment in our community is being made.”

The recent case of Yu Fen Wang, the nursery caregiver who is accused of stabbing several infants and two adults at a Flushing birth center last month, has underscored what advocates say is a lack of services, according to Ms. Yoo.

An attorney for Ms. Wang, Jean Wang, says that her client has suffered from mental illness for some time and had previously attempted suicide. A doctor saw her for what she described as insomnia, the attorney said, but “no one told her she had a mental illness and treated her for that.”

“There was a lot of overlooking of this by her doctor,” said Ms. Wang, the attorney.

Asian New Yorkers make up about 14% of the city’s population. Unlike other ethnic groups, suicide is a leading cause of death among Asians and Pacific Islanders, according to the most recent data from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Asian New Yorkers also have the highest rates of poverty, and about half have limited English proficiency, city data shows.

Advocates and mental-health providers said numerous barriers hamper Asian New Yorkers from receiving care, first among them cultural stigmas surrounding mental illness, which many see as a Western concept.

Preventative care for mental health is a practically unknown concept in the community, providers say. Those who seek care often don’t want family members to know because “it’s looked upon as being shameful to the family,” according to Joy Luangphaxay, assistant executive director of behavioral health services at Hamilton-Madison House in Manhattan, a social-services organization.

“People tend not to reach out until it’s a last resort,” she said.

Mental-health providers say they often treat people who don’t have insurance or those who are unable to pay even the minimum on a sliding-fee scale. Translators aren’t practical to use—or even helpful—in a clinical setting, providers say.

Further, there is no pipeline of people entering the profession who are linguistically and culturally competent. There is a lack of specialists in the field who can treat people with substance abuse and gambling addictions, and those who identify as LGBTQ, according to providers.

The city’s ThriveNYC program has worked closely with the Korean, Chinese and Bengali community, among others, to host training sessions in mental-health first aid, said Ms. McCray, who added that, on the whole, providers don’t have enough resources.

“We don’t have what we need to have, but there are resources to help people deal with the immediate challenges,” Ms. McCray said of people needing acute care.

A spokeswoman for Ms. McCray said ThriveNYC was recruiting more native speakers and has trained more than 1,000 people in mental-health first aid in Mandarin, with at least six other training sessions scheduled around the city by year-end.

About 20% of the clinicians in the ThriveNYC mental-health service corps, which places clinicians in practices around the city, identify as Asian and speak an Asian language, said Gary Belkin, the city’s executive deputy commissioner for mental health.

Joanne Park, clinical director of a mental-health clinic in Flushing, Queens, operated by Korean Community Services of Metropolitan New York, said she has enough clients on waiting lists that she has had to put a halt on further outreach.

“I can only give my clinicians so many caseloads without them burning out,” she said.

Oct 25, 2018
The Wall Street Journal
By Melanie Grace West

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