Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Vietnamese Refugees' Levels of Distress, Social Support, and Acculturation: Implications for Mental Health Counseling

Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Vietnamese Refugees' Levels of Distress, Social Support, and Acculturation: Implications for Mental Health Counseling

Article excerpt

This study examines psychosocial adjustment issues for two different groups of Vietnamese refugees and provides recommendations for mental health interventions. The findings show significant differences in levels of distress, social support and acculturation between the two groups and may be generalized to other refugee populations. The findings also suggest that mental health professionals need to be aware of intergroup and gender differences in refugee psychosocial adjustment and understand the importance of pre- and postmigration issues to be effective mental health counselors.

Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, a large number of Vietnamese refugees have entered the United States. The first wave of Vietnamese refugees arrived between 1975 and 1977 (Chung, Bemak, & Okazaki, 1997) and were generally well educated and proficient in English. Due to their contact and cooperation with Americans during the war, they were targets of the Vietcong resulting in the U.S. government airlifting and sealifting many of them out of Vietnam. In contrast, the second and subsequent wave of refugees arrived in the United States after 1978, during the postwar era, leaving Vietnam by sea on makeshift boats and rafts, so that they are often referred to as boat people. Many in this group suffered atrocities during their escape and were victims of torture, starvation, malnutrition, assault, rape, and/or robbery, with many children witnessing these atrocities (Chung & Bemak, 1998; Matsuoka, 1993). This group tended to be poorer, less educated, and subject to greater premigration trauma than the first wave (Chung et al., 1997). It has been suggested that the first wave, when compared to the second wave, experienced fewer postmigration adjustment problems due to the differences in the premigration experiences (Nguyen, 1982).

Longitudinal research on refugee children and adolescents is sparse (Sack, Chanrithy Him, & Dickason, 1999) despite the fact that 35% to 50% of the refugee population is estimated to have been under the age of 17 upon arrival in the United States (Huang, 1989). The few studies on refugee adolescents and children are limited in that they use clinical samples and/or recently arrived refugee children (e.g. Fry, 1985; Harding & Looney, 1977; Rousseau & Drapeau, 1998), and focus on youth at higher risk for maladjustments (e.g., Bemak & Greenberg, 1994; Felsman, Leong, Johnson, & Felsman, 1990; McKelvy, Webb, & Mao, 1993; Miller, 1998).

Little is known about the ongoing adjustment and mental health of young Vietnamese refugees given the lack of research and inconsistent findings. Some studies suggest that Vietnamese refugee adolescents are at high risk for the development of emotional distress including depression, psychotic episodes, and impaired social functioning due to their premigration traumatic experiences (e.g., Bemak & Greenberg, 1994; Charron & Ness, 1983; Nicassio, 1985; Rahe, Looney, Ward, Tung, & Liu, 1978). It is postulated that strong emotional family support helps refugee children adapt to their new environment (Harding & Looney, 1977; Huang, 1989), consistent with findings that social support and significant adults have a strong impact on Vietnamese refugee adolescents' psychosocial development (Charron & Ness, 1983; Dinh, Sarason, & Sarason, 1994; Gold, 1993; McAdoo, 1993).

Although studies clearly establish higher incidents of mental health problems for refugees (Kinzie, 1993; Weisaeth & Eitinger, 1993; Williams & Berry, 1991), there is an absence of research about the adaptation process and subsequent mental health of refugee adults who migrated as children. To provide effective mental health interventions with this population, it is essential to understand the migration and psychosocial adjustment experiences and examine this process as it affects mental health. Therefore, this study investigates the relationship between mental health practice and the long-term effects of psychosocial adjustment of two waves of Vietnamese refugees who migrated to the United States as children. …

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