This profile was written by Jackie Zubrzycki of the Colorado Health Institute, a third-party evaluator of the Colorado Health Access Fund. Pictured in the cover photo: Thanh Nguyen, a behavioral health clinician at APDC.
When the Asian Pacific Development Center (APDC) was founded nearly 40 years ago, it focused on supporting Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants with health care, language classes, and more. In 2018, APDC’s staff wanted to reach out more directly to Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American people in Colorado, most of whom don’t live near its Aurora clinic.
APDC used its grant from the Colorado Health Access Fund to partner with Mi Casa Resource Center, a community organization based in southwest Denver, to help make mental health services more accessible to people who had trouble getting to the Aurora clinic. Thanh Nguyen, a mental health provider, offers mental health services in Mi Casa Resource Center’s building, closer to where many Vietnamese markets and restaurants are located and a familiar place for many in the community.
APDC also created its first-ever team focused on reaching out to the Vietnamese community. It used the grant to hire Hue Phung and Thuy Tran as community navigators. Phung was born in America and is Catholic, while Tran is Buddhist and was born in Vietnam. These diverse backgrounds helped the navigators connect with different people in the community through their existing relationships.
Phung and Tran visited churches, temples, schools, universities, shops, doctor’s offices, and pharmacies throughout the Denver metro area to make connections to leaders in the community and educate people about behavioral health. They came into contact with nearly 1,600 people over the course of their outreach.
APDC hosted three focus groups targeted to different age groups to help understand the needs within the communities and how community members thought about mental health.
The challenges they reported took different forms. As APDC expected, transportation was a barrier to seeking mental health care. People who depended on Medicaid for transportation, in particular, reported missing appointments or waiting for long periods of time after services.
Another common thread: Younger and older people shared that it could be difficult to talk to each other about their challenges. Some younger people said that they didn’t identify with the mainstream American culture they experienced at school, but also felt disconnected when they visited Vietnam. Older generations were concerned that their culture might be lost if children or grandchildren were no longer able to speak the Vietnamese language or practice traditions. In some cases, family members had experienced trauma that had affected the entire family.
But stigma and shame often prevent people from talking about such things. “The loss of face is a big thing,” Nguyen said. She said that when challenges hit, people tend to seek support within their families or from trusted leaders in the community.
Nguyen said another challenge is that the concept of mental health is not common in Vietnamese and other southeast Asian cultures. “They focus more on somatic complaints,” she said, referring to physical symptoms like fatigue or pain that may be tied to underlying mental health challenges. That points to a need for more education about mental health, she said.
The APDC team focused on addressing the concerns they learned about through different programs and offerings. They created a wellness program at APDC to support older community members in the Denver area. They shared information about APDC’s behavioral health services with community leaders in an effort to reduce stigma. “We were able to plant those seeds. People are becoming aware of mental health.”
They also made direct connections to several community organizations. For instance, members of one church congregation were concerned that some young children were feeling depressed. APDC’s team worked to host a series of workshops at the church on topics such as identity and self-worth, intergenerational conflict, and mental health.
Now, the church is looking into inviting more speakers to talk about mental health. “Before, no one really talked about it,” Phung said. “The atmosphere has changed.”
The Colorado Health Access Fund grant supported therapy and other behavioral health services for 50 people and education about behavioral health issues for more than 360 people. But Nguyen and Phung said the reach of the program extended beyond the numbers.
It sometimes took months for initial conversations to lead to people seeking therapy or communities welcoming a workshop. But over time, Phung said, “we were able to plant those seeds. People are becoming aware of mental health.” APDC is continuing its work in the Vietnamese community, including its services in southwest Denver, even after the end of the Colorado Health Access Fund grant.
Harry Budisidharta, CEO of APDC, is on the Colorado Health Access Fund's Advisory Committee.