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  • Jullianne Pham

Mental Illness: Does This Really Make Me Crazy?

Historically, individuals afflicted with mental disorders are often misunderstood and mistreated in the Vietnamese culture.

How we define mental disorders matter. Words in the Vietnamese culture often hold cultural connotations beyond definitions and can’t be precisely replicated or are lost in translation. In America, when describing those who have mental illnesses refer to a number of behavioral and psychological disorders that produce a range of mild to severe dysfunctions. In Vietnam, the definition of mental illness, or bệnh tâm thần, refer to those with SEVERE psychiatric disorder and carries with it a negative reference close to "madness." The disorder is defined, not just by how it afflicts the sufferer, but also by how it negatively affects those around the patient, rather than aspects such as curability for the individual. This phrase also carries with it the stereotyped connotation of a wild, unpredictable, and a dangerous person.

Psychiatrists are referred to as bác sĩ tâm thần, which is commonly understood as “doctors who treat madness”—it implies the ridiculousness of those obligated to care for them. Điên and khùng are colloquial terms that are equivalent to “crazy” or “nuts”, and evokes fear and apprehensiveness when used. Unfortunately, these terms are most often used in judgment of individuals who are sufferers of any level of mental disorders—they’re simply “crazy”.

The importance of family cannot be understated or underestimated in the Vietnamese culture. The family is regarded as a fundamental unit of respect and cohesion. Therefore, the good of the family takes precedence over an individual's welfare. In this context, a mentally ill person’s behavior or thoughts are regarded as marks of shame for the immediate and extended family. Although families have the option of taking mentally ill patients to therapy and treatments, instead they are commonly hidden at home in order to prevent familial disgrace.

How is this going to raise awareness of mental disorders within the Asian American community? How is this going to make individuals feel they are gaining support from their own family? Often times, those that open up about their mental illnesses are turned down and called “crazy” and are simply told, “It’s okay it’s just a phase. You’ll get over it.” Feelings of guilt, shame, and weakness inhibit Vietnamese families from admitting mental health problems. If this is the case, how does one vocalize one's feelings without being judged by one's own family members? How does one gain support without rejection?

So how are mental illnesses "treated" in Vietnamese households?

Traditional medicine plays an enormous role in the Vietnamese medical system and is often the preferred method of treatment for a variety of illnesses. Traditional healing is more revered over psychiatry because of its long history of integration into the Vietnamese culture. Traditional medicine is seen as more locally accessible, eliminating the cost of care in a health facility or a therapist. There is no stigma attached with going to a traditional healer who treats all diseases with the right remedies as compared to seeing a doctor who only treats mental illnesses.

The Vietnamese attitude towards mental illnesses are multifaceted and complex. Social responses to them depend on a variety of factors such as the type of disorder, its negative impact, as well as cultural concepts and assumptions about the illness. Concepts of mental illness are influenced by values, religion, and the social context. Stigma is highly interwoven with mental disorders in the Vietnamese culture, especially within the family. Suppressed emotions, family burdens, and inaccessibility of mental health resources are only some outcomes of this stigma. It is such a big issue within the Vietnamese American community—not only the concept of mental disorders, but the perpetuation of the stigmas that go along with it—and it needs to be brought to light.

Many Vietnamese Americans live their day-to-day lives dealing with anxiety, depression, personality disorders, eating disorders, and bipolar mood disorders. It is not okay that those who suffer with mental illnesses to be restrained from giving a voice to their reality—a reality that many people refuse to openly witness or learn about.

If you or someone you know needs support or intervention, please reach out to these resources for further information and help:

  • SAMSHA also has a Behavioral Health Treatment Locator on their website that can generate local treatment services in your area

For places within the San Jose, CA area:

  • NAMI Santa Clara County (Non-profit organization)

  • Momentum for Mental Health (mental health service)

  • ACT for Mental Health (mental health clinic)

  • Mental Health Urgent Care (mental health clinic)

  • REACH (mental health service)

  • Narvaez Mental Health (mental health clinic)

  • San Jose Behavioral Health (addiction treatment center)

  • Alum Rock Counseling Center (youth social services)

  • Crestwood Behavioral Health (wellness center)

  • Gardner Health Center (medical center)

  • Good Samaritan Behavioral Health (mental health services)

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Jullianne Pham


With her driving passion of health sciences, Jullianne aims to provide service, research, and education towards Asian-American communities in order to close the gap of health disparities that people of color face. She has worked alongside physicians and surgeons in the San Joaquin County as a Decision Medicine Intern, and has worked closely with the Vietnamese-American community in the Bay Area to raise awareness about unspoken diseases as a Community Health Outreach Intern at the Asian Liver Center of Stanford University. As an aspiring Physician Assistant with a concentrated service within the Asian-American community, Jullianne hopes to discuss and expose the unspoken diseases and health issues that do not create dialogue within the Vietnamese household and community.

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