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  • Jullianne Pham

Secrecy Behind PTSD Among Vietnamese Elders Affecting Second Generation

Trauma and its enduring legacy--a well-known but rarely admitted secret among many Vietnamese elders and immigrants. The fall of Saigon in 1975 has left many Vietnamese grappling with the horrors of the war, communist “reeducation”, escapes by boats, and refugee camps. Decades after the end of war, at least half a million refugees have arrived to the United States in search of a better future for themselves and their families.

As a result of fleeing from the communists and the emotional impacts the war had on Vietnamese refugees, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become widespread among the Vietnamese American population. Mental health experts and researchers have linked this trauma to depression, domestic abuse, and gambling addiction. However, PTSD is very difficult to treat among the less acculturated older generation, especially due to their reluctance to discuss traumatic experiences and their beliefs and attitudes about mental illnesses. Some individuals believe that mental illness does not exist, and some believe that mental illness is a curse.

The enduring signs of trauma can manifest themselves in violent or disordered behavior. A clinical social worker and the co-host of a Vietnamese community television program in Garden Grove, California, Paul Hoang, recalled treating a refugee who had spent years searching for her daughter. When the child and mother were reunited, the two could not connect emotionally and maintain a bond, thus separated. The mother is now eighty-four years old and lives in a garage with a dog as her only companion. While many Vietnamese patients do not admit to PTSD, they are still suffering from it nonetheless. Many symptoms that Vietnamese elders commonly complain about to the doctor’s office are headaches, dizziness, fainting, and body pains--all symptoms to PTSD. When doctors cannot find anything that is physically wrong and patients demand relief, doctors prescribe them painkillers, which can lead to overmedication.

Parents who experience PTSD, nightmares, and depression can pass these conditions to their children and family members: a concept called the intergenerational transfer of trauma. This was first documented among the children of Holocaust survivors, and now Vietnamese survivors. First-generation and second-generation Vietnamese individuals have reported that their parents’ traumas have affected their lives through abuse, mistrust in outsiders of the family, and night fevers. However, the reasoning behind these behaviors are not always obvious due to the secrecy behind their PTSD.

Culturally appropriate care is needed for the Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian immigrants for mental health issues. Mental health is universal, and it is not a concept that only westerners should be aware about. As a storytelling culture, telling stories would help alleviate the isolation many immigrants feel when it comes to their trauma. Workshops for second-generation youths would also help them understand and make sense of how war traumas inflicted on their parents or grandparents still haunt their families.

The following are examples of a few community based services for those affected with mental illnesses:

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Host: Trami Cron and Jullianne Pham

Guest: Duy Pham, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

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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