Strike a Chord: Mental Health Workers Face Unique Challenges with Chinese Immigrants
Chinatown is one of the most densely populated and fastest growing neighborhoods in New York City, and comes with unique cultural challenges for mental health workers.
For starters, one big obstacle is built into the language itself, in an insult similar to calling someone crazy.
“In China, when you curse someone, you usually say shen jing bing,” said Wen-chun Hung, a director of the psychiatric treatment program at the Henry Street Settlement in Chinatown. “In Chinese concepts shen jing bing is mental illness.”
Over 80 percent of the clients at Henry Street are Chinese immigrants, usually coming to New York City from the Chinese countryside, and sometimes owing up to 100 thousand dollars to the people that helped them get here. They work long hours, often at low-paying jobs, and if a mental health issue arises, they often can’t afford to miss work to deal with it. Hung said another Chinese concept--losing face in the community--affects people and entire families when it comes to mental illness.
“Usually they want to cover this condition, just hold it in the family” Hung said. “They don’t want to disclose it to others.”
Hung and the Henry Street Settlement take a bicultural approach with clients, honoring eastern and western philosophy. Hung acknowledges the benefits of Tai Chi, and he says he’s seen an evolution in Chinese culture here: people are becoming more open to western medicine.