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UC Davis Health System

UC Davis Health System

UC Davis to launch Asian American Center on Disparities Research

Photo of young Asian American male One recent study suggested that among college students, foreign-born Asian Americans experience more psychological maladjustments, including depression and social anxiety, than U.S.-born Asian Americans and white Americans.

UC Davis has been awarded a five-year, $3.9-million federal grant to launch a national research center focused on mental health issues facing Asian Americans.

The grant, from the National Institute of Mental Health, will establish the Asian American Center on Disparities Research. Headquartered at UC Davis, the new center will support and coordinate the efforts of a network of researchers who study Asian-American mental health issues. The network, which is expected to grow over time, will start out with 36 researchers from 18 universities in nine states, Puerto Rico and Taiwan.

"I welcome the new UC Davis Center because they will contribute very substantially and substantively to the gaps in our understanding of mental health issues affecting Asian Americans," said Moon Chen Jr., principal investigator for Asian American Network for Cancer Awareness Research and Training (AANCART). "Among U.S. racial/ethnic groups, Asian Americans are the least likely to be cited in publicly assessable literature, even if they're the nation's fastest growing group in percentage terms."

"Among U.S. racial/ethnic groups, Asian Americans are the least likely to be cited in photo of Dr. Moon Chen publicly assessable literature, even if they're the nation's fastest growing group in percentage terms."
— Moon Chen, Jr., UC Davis professor for Division of Hematology and Oncology

If it is not in literature, people do not know the problem exists and assume everything is fine, Moon said.

"As a result, people think that Asian Americans are the model minority ... and that is a myth," he said.

Health disparities

"Health disparities" refers to differences in access to or quality of health care on the basis of race or ethnicity.

"Contrary to the 'model minority' myth, Asian Americans have serious needs for mental health care that have been inadequately addressed," said Nolan Zane, a professor of psychology and Asian American Studies at UC Davis and director and principal investigator of the new center. "Not only are their rates of mental illness much higher than previously believed, but Asian Americans who enter into the mental health system tend to be more severely disturbed than other ethnic groups. In addition, there is compelling evidence that mental health services are inadequate for many Asian American clients, along with serious doubt as to whether treatments that have been validated with predominantly white patient populations are actually effective for Asian Americans. The center's research will address these issues that continue to challenge the mental health field."

Zane formally announced the grant and formation of the new center earlier this month at the annual meeting of the Asian American Psychological Association in San Francisco.

Asian American Center on Disparities Research

The center will provide seed grants to support promising research; build an Internet information server, videoconferencing and data-sharing capabilities to make it easier for researchers nationally to share knowledge, avoid redundancy and isolation and get technical assistance; inform mental health providers and policymakers about how to effectively serve complex, shifting Asian American communities; mentor young researchers on campuses that may not have senior faculty with expertise in Asian American mental health issues; and link researchers with community organizations that serve Asian Americans. The center will partner with the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association, whose members include most of the mental health and health agencies nationwide that specialize in serving Asian American communities.

Among the questions center researchers will investigate:

  • Are standard treatments for mental illness effective for Asian Americans? The answer is unclear, since few studies include many Asian American patients. A recent analysis of 379 National Institute of Mental Health-funded psychiatric clinical trial studies published between 1995 and 2004 found that fewer than half included information on patients' ethnicity. Of those trials, Asian Americans made up only 0.6 percent of the patients studied – the lowest representation of any ethnic group. The new center will test treatments that have proved effective in predominately white populations to see if they also work in Asian Americans.

  • How do Asian Americans show depression and other psychological disorders? Some researchers argue that a psychological expression of distress is a Western phenomenon, and that people of other cultures, including Asians, are more likely to express distress through such physical symptoms as insomnia, recurring nightmares, loss of appetite, weight loss and headaches. A failure to understand this could lead to inaccurate diagnoses, inappropriate referrals and a poor quality of care.

  • Are standard psychiatric diagnoses used in the U.S. adequate for Asian-American clients? For example, one disorder, neurasthenia, may affect 3 to 4 percent of Asian Americans, some research suggests. Another disorder, known in Korean as hwa-byung, may be three times more common in Korean Americans than in Koreans living in Korea. Hwa-byung is a suppressed anger syndrome characterized by heart palpitations, flushing, headache, anxiety and sadness. Neither disorder is included in the latest American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV).

  • How do Asian Americans view mental illness? Research suggests some Asian Americans hold attitudes and beliefs that may differ from those of mainstream mental health providers. For example, Asian Americans may view schizophrenia or major depression as karmic retribution for ancestral misbehavior rather than as a biological problem. Other evidence suggests that family shame and stigma are important reasons many Asian Americans delay seeking treatment for emotional problems.

  • Do younger Asian Americans face special psychological pressures? One recent study suggested that among college students, foreign-born Asian Americans experience more psychological maladjustments, including depression and social anxiety, than U.S.-born Asian Americans and white Americans.

  • How can the mental health field keep up with rapid changes in Asian American immigration patterns? The diversity among Asian American ethnic groups and sudden shifts in immigration patterns from Asia continue to create major challenges for researchers. The at-risk populations and types of mental distress seen a few years ago may not represent the community's present mental health needs.

Collaborations

The newly announced Asian American Center on Disparities Research will collaborate with two other UC Davis programs that address health disparities: the Center for Reducing Health Disparities and the Center for Health Services Research in Primary Care. It will also work with the Asian American Network for Cancer Awareness, Research and Training, a National Cancer Institute-funded program based at UC Davis.

"I'm hoping that we can share and duplicate efforts and synergize what we're doing to maximize the result," said Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, director for the Center for Reducing Health Disparities at the UC Davis School of Medicine.

The new center builds on the National Research Center on Asian American Mental Health, also funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, which was housed at UC Davis from 1988 through 2002. During its 14 years of operation, that center and its researchers were awarded more than $11 million in research grants and contracts, published 334 studies in the field of Asian American Mental Health and trained more than 40 researchers in the study of mental health issues of Asian Americans and other ethnic minorities.