A podcast aims to make mental health treatment easier for Hmong-Americans

The theme of the day was trauma, but the mood was convivial as the four therapists sat down to record the latest episode of the Hmong Mental Health Podcast.

The group met at the offices of the Vanguard Mental Health and Wellness Clinic in Woodbury for the third episode of the podcast, which began in March and is already attracting attention in the mental health care community.

Psychologist Alyssa Kaying Vang, who opened Vanguard 15 years ago, hopes the podcast will lower the barriers to therapy for Hmong Americans.

“Although we are seeing an increasing openness to mental health services, there is still a stigma in the Hmong community,” she said.

Traditional Hmong culture values ​​the physical and mental; The concept of mental health has no place in this model, Vang said. Hmong therapists trained in the USA practice with Western methods.

The explosion on social media has been both a blessing and a challenge for psychotherapists, Vang said. People have better access to information, but also a greater likelihood of finding misinformation.

“It forced us to say, ‘Hey, if we’re going to meet the needs of the mental health community today, we have to do something different to reach these communities and make a difference,'” she said.

The podcast cannot replace professional therapists, Vang said. But for people who don’t have a referral for therapy, or who would rather listen to a podcast than see a therapist, the show can provide access to quality mental health information. For others it could be a bridge to treatment.

A podcast also has the potential to reach more people than any single clinic, Vang said. By mid-June, around 475 people had downloaded the program without much advertising. And therapists on the podcast can reach Hmong communities across the country, from Minnesota to California and North Carolina.

Most of the Hmong community has operated in survival mode until recently, said Sheng Elizabeth Lor, executive producer of the Social X Change Project, a Hmong activist platform.

“My parents went through a war,” Lor said. “They don’t have time to think about mental health; they survive. Now that we’re at a point where we’re no longer in pure survival mode… things like activism, mental health and self-development come into play.”

The line between physical and mental health has traditionally been blurred in the Hmong community, emphasizing physical and mental health instead, Vang said. Overt symptoms of mental health problems in the US, such as loss of appetite or poor concentration, are often attributed to mental or physical ailments in Hmong culture.

“Mental health often comes with weakness, shame and vulnerability that we don’t want the community to see,” Lor said. “So there are many levels that we need to explore.”

A 2020 report by Wilder Research acknowledged the lack of resources for culturally competent mental health care for the Hmong community. At the time, Vang was one of only a handful of Hmong therapists in Minnesota. Since then the field has grown; There are now at least 30 Hmong-speaking mental health providers in Minnesota.

But it’s still far from enough to meet demand. Vang hired four new therapists in 2020, she said, but the clinic continues to receive new referrals every day and maintains a waiting list for patients.

Even among US-born Hmong people, there is a desire for culture-specific care, she said. “There is a great need for providers who look and sound like you,” said therapist and podcaster Mosi Thao.

With the community hurting so much, Vang decided that the podcast’s first season should focus on self-healing. Episodes so far have focused on attachment and trauma, with a closer look at how Hmong people experience them.

“Because Hmong history is full of oppressive history and repressed experiences, historically we have internalized this narrative that says we are a people without a country,” says Vang in her introduction to the third episode.

Although the podcasters speak mostly in English, they keep dipping into Hmong “when the concept is better understood in that language,” Vang said. Some concepts work better in English, such as understanding certain disorders like schizophrenia.

Listeners have said they love switching between languages, even if it’s just a sentence or a few words in Hmong. “People of the younger generation are like, ‘Oh, I’m really going to learn Hmong through these podcasts,'” Thao said.

The podcast provides the kind of information Lor needs for the community. “It’s nice to have four professionals conversing in a way that’s lighthearted, talkative and not very clinical, but still has a lot of educational components,” she said.

For the latest episode, Vang decided to replace the scripts with a simple list of questions to allow therapists to interact more casually. “I like it,” Thao said. “It seems like there is a narrative and a flow. It’s like we’re doing color commentary.”

Each question on the Episode 3 list could be its own podcast, said therapist and podcaster Houa Vang. “Let’s get started!” said Vang.

The podcasters checked their mics and Vang hit record: “Welcome back to the ‘Hmong Mental Health Podcast’.”

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