CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Improving education about available mental health services for Asian Americans can break down cultural barriers that may contribute to delayed treatment for serious disorders such as schizophrenia and manic depression, a University of Illinois researcher says.
That conclusion is based on a study done in Los Angeles, where more than 50 percent of severely mentally ill Asian Americans currently under treatment sought help at publicly supported -- and culturally competent -- mental health clinics within six months of the onset of their problems.
"The take-home message is that Asian-American patients and their families can be successfully engaged in the treatment for stigmatized illnesses," said Sumie Okazaki, a professor of psychology. "The longer these illnesses go untreated, the worse the outcome."
Reporting in the January issue of the quarterly American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Okazaki noted that only a few Asian-American patients in the study had unnecessarily delayed seeking treatment. In these cases in which patients delayed seeking help for long periods, families felt more shame. Ten percent of the patients in the study delayed seeking treatment for more than three years.
The overall findings, however, were encouraging, Okazaki said, because they indicated that some Asian Americans are getting treatment early in the course of serious disorders. But, she said, the study only looked at a county in which clinics were equipped with culturally aware staff members who spoke the languages of its Asian-American residents.
Only a few studies have looked at how Asian Americans seek help from mental health facilities. The past studies examined mostly patients with less-severe problems and suggested a trend of delayed treatment, Okazaki said. "Asian Americans with severe mental illnesses have rarely been studied," she said, "partly because of a lack of access to the population to assess how serious problems may be. Conducting studies of a predominantly immigrant population takes enormous resources because many different languages and dialects are involved."
In this case, 62 Asian-American patients with severe mental illness and 40 relatives were interviewed about how soon help was sought and how family members viewed the situation.
Because Asian Americans often maintain highly interdependent relationships, they are hesitant to acknowledge what some consider "a shameful family secret" to outsiders, Okazaki said. In this study, potential treatment was deemed available and accessible at the Los Angeles clinics.
Mental health facilities in areas of growing Asian-Americans populations can learn from the findings, she said. Educating community members is important. A clinic that has staff members who are sensitive to the cultural background of Asian Americans, she said, will promote a perception that help is easily accessible and beneficial.