Jumping on planes and overcrowded boats to destinations unknown, thousands fleeing the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, opened a new chapter of their lives.
Some Vietnamese refugees recall abuse in holding camps while awaiting entry into willing host countries; others struggled with the emotional upheaval of re-settlement in a strange land.
“You do not have a choice what to bring with you or who to be with you and how things will be and even a choice to say goodbye to your friends and family,” said Dr. Suzie Dong Matsuda, a clinical psychologist who worked with Vietnamese refugees for 19 years at the Orange County Health Care Agency.
Dr. Matsuda left her family and Vietnam by boat and lived in a camp in Indonesia before settling in Orange County in 1984.
“My mom said, ‘I want you to have a future, just go.’ And so I did. I was a teenager,” said Matsuda.
Dealing with stigma
Cultural stigma caused many to struggle silently with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress – especially among the first wave of refugees.
“People may speculate that in your past life you did something wrong, maybe in your family there is something wrong,” said Matsuda. “They do not think mental illness is a brain illness, but [think of it] more as contributing to one’s character. In an interdependent culture, it makes the family look bad.”
In Orange County today, home to the largest community of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam, there is a growing movement toward removing the stigma of mental illness through awareness.
Though there is still a great need for more culturally competent providers who speak the language of their clients, Matsuda says, it is still possible for a provider who cannot speak Vietnamese, to help.
“When I was in college, I was saved by a psychologist who knew that I went through depression and I was quite suicidal at the time…and it did help me to get through my school year and graduate. He was not Vietnamese. [He was] not speaking my language, but the empathy and compassion did make a difference.”
For more on where to access mental health services and information, see below.
Orange County Behavioral Health and Referral: (855) OC-LINKS/ (855) 625-4657
Los Angeles County Mental Health Services: 877-344-2858
Los Angeles County Substance Use Treatment Services: 800-564-6600
For those who have private health insurance, call your insurance provider and ask for Behavioral Health Services.