Hurricanes Katrina and in Rita in 2005, followed just five years later by the BP oil spill, are often regarded as a one-two punch for residents along the Gulf Coast. But for many people in the region’s Vietnamese community, so many of whom make their living in the fishing industry, these catastrophes just piled fresh anguish and stress on mental wounds that may have been festering for decades.
“Since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, people are still very much impacted by their past,” says Dr. Dung Ngo, a psychologist who specializes in the mental health of Vietnamese Americans. “You will hear people express or recount their experiences and express raw emotion as if their experiences just happened in the past month.”
Dr. Ngo says for people who saw their homes destroyed, their families displaced and their livelihoods taken away as war convulsed their home country, the destruction of hurricanes and the economic disruption of the oil spill have been especially difficult, causing many to essentially re-experience past traumatic events.
“Through dreams, through flashbacks, we see a lot of active PTSD symptoms. And we see a lot of changes in personality and functional skills, including parenting styles, which also impact martial relationships and which contribute to domestic violence,” he says.
There’s an increase in substance abuse and compulsive gambling, while a language barrier and a lack of access to mental health care in the Vietnamese American community has made the problem worse. Recently however, a nonprofit called Boat People SOS has been working to change that. It’s an organization many of the people most severely impacted already know intimately.
“We were formed 33 years ago, originally on the West Coast and at that time we were rescuing the boat people who were escaping from Vietnam, hence our name Boat People SOS,” says regional director Grace Scire. “We actually went out in huge tankers and literally lifted the boat people off the boats and rescued them and brought them to the United States.”
Boat People SOS is now a national organization with regional offices, and its mission has evolved from rescue to community advocacy. As the psychological toll of Katrina and the oil spill became clear, Boat People SOS turned its attention to mental health services. Dr. Ngo, who consults on this effort, says one important part is cultural competency training for mental health providers and others who can help the community.
“And so we train them to understand the Vietnamese American experiences. We train them to understand from the cultural perspective how Vietnamese Americans conceptualize mental health or psychological problems and how do they go about dealing with this issue,” he says.
Other components include stress management workshops – what Dr. Ngo calls psychological first aid — so people can see how their issues impact family life, work, and their own health. And there’s training for what he calls peer companions — people who can help their friends and neighbors with the most basic needs and recognize when someone needs professional help. In this way, a group that started as a boat lift is becoming a bridge, helping connect its people with the greater community’s resources on their own terms.
“We have to develop a network where hopefully our people, the Vietnamese Americans, will receive culturally sensitive services from other organizations in the New Orleans area,” says Dr. Ngo.
Written by Ian McNulty for the Community IMPACT Series and produced by WWNO in partnership with the Greater New Orleans Foundation. To learn more about Boat People SOS, click here.