UC Riverside gets grant to study Pacific Islander mental health

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A UC Riverside researcher has received one of the first grants from the National Institute of Mental Health designed to learn more about the mental health needs of Pacific Islanders.

There are more than 50,000 native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in Southern California, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. They are the third fastest-growing racial group in L.A. County, but Andrew Subica, an assistant professor of social medicine and population health in the UC Riverside School of Medicine, says the community’s mental health needs remain unclear.

"They have high rates of obesity, cancer, diabetes and heart disease," he says. "We suspect they also have high rates of mental illness and substance use; unfortunately, there is almost no research in the U.S. to confirm that."

Subica will use the two-year, $452,000 federal grant to study attitudes towards mental health among Samoans in Los Angeles and Marshall Islanders in Arkansas.

"There's some evidence, which is really interesting, that some Pacific Islander communities or cultures look at mental health issues as a curse," he says. "Which is actually a big barrier to them actually seeking services, because it increases shame."

Subica will also investigate what prevents people from seeking mental health care. He suspects the barriers could be language, stigma or a shortage of Pacific Islander health providers.

He says he will then bring community members together to determine which barriers are most significant, so they can explore ways to address them. The ultimate goal of the research, says Subica, is to create "the first Pacific Islander intervention that increases their engagement in mental health services."