Mental illness in the Chinese community is very often a taboo. Families encounter mental illness often does not know how to communicate with patients. Where can they get help?
Elaine Peng, Director of Asian Community Programs of National Alliance on Mental Illness Alameda County South(NAMI ACS) with her own family's experiences, helps to promote mental health services and becomes a volunteer. She has helped many people in the Chinese community out of the same situation.
Zhou: Do you have any formal education or professional background in mental health?
Peng: No, not at all. I emigrated from China. I had lived in Guangzhou and Hong Kong before. I worked in trading industry. In 2005, I moved to America to start my new life with working in the education field. But had never been in contact with mental health issues.
Zhou: Then why did you start working in mental health community?
Peng: I have to start with the passing of my husband. In 2012 he left the States to go back to China. Less than a month he died under abnormal circumstances. I was devastated and so upset that I don’t even know what I was doing. My daughter said, “If dad was here, he definitely would not want to see you like this.”
Freeing and extricate from a sad situation
Zhou：How did you get yourself out of this shadow of darkness after the passing of your husband?
A: After my husband passed away, I got another blow – my daughter got sick. I also realized that I have some mental health issues. One time, when my friend gave me a ride on the freeway, I suddenly felt that my friend was driving unbearably fast. I was all pale and sweaty, I told her to slow down but she told me she was driving at the speed limit. So she took me to the hospital. After physical exam, nothing was identified. However, I realized that I may become mentally ill. I told myself, if I am going to overcome this, I need to be strong and seek help from the professionals. After I got the help I need, my illness got under control. I did think that if I could hang in there for a little while, I may be able to overcome it. But finally realized that professional help is very important. I heard stories that many people that have depression said that no one can understand the pain they go through, I found this to be true. I hope everyone knows that with the support from family and with professional help, you can overcome this difficult period. Just by battling on your own is not going to work.
I thought if I could hang in there for a little while I may overcome it by myself. But then, I realized that there was no way without help from the professionals.
I heard a lot of mental patients saying that no one on the earth can understand how miserable they feel. I felt the same way when I didn't feel well. But at the same time, I hope to stress one point that with the help from professionals, with the understanding from your family members, you will overcome it. Don’t battle on your own when you can get so much support from the others.
Zhou: Was the illness of your daughter related to her father's passed away?
Peng: Yes, she started having symptoms after her father passed away. She couldn't fall asleep for 2 weeks. She was smart enough to realize there was some wrong about hers, so she contacted the councilor and the principal of her school. She thought perhaps her sleeplessness was due to the passing of her father. The school told her to exercise more so she will be tired enough to get some sleep. 8 months later when everyone started to think that the whole thing was over, my daughter became severely ill.
I realized that there were so many similar symptoms between my daughter and my husband. My husband masked his depression with alcohol over 20 years, however, I have never realized the fact that this kind of behavior is related to mental illness. My husband had never undergone any of mental illness treatment when he was alive.
Later on, the condition of my daughter became serious. She had to stay in the hospital. The first doctor told me that my daughter has inherited the illness from her father. He asked about our family history which included my husband’s alcohol abuse. I told the doctor that I was had often doubt about my husband's death that it was somehow related to the alcohol abuse because the wine bottle was sitting right next to him when his body was found.
Early detection, lessen regrets.
Zhou: What has changed you since the death of your husband and your daughter getting ill?
Peng: I felt guilty because of ignorance. I had no idea that my husband was suffering from mental illness and I am not willing to consider that side of the problem. My husband was a brilliant man so I would never even thought of him as having mental problem. My daughter told me:“If I could become ill before father’s death, we could have had identified his symptoms and had the chance to save him.”
Thinking back, the symptoms already started when he was in the university. 20 years has passed and no one even knows what has happened. It’s a shame. I kept reflecting, why didn’t anyone ever think that his problem was mental health related.
Starting from that time, I realized promoting the knowledge of mental health is so important. Since 2013, I started working with NAMI. It was very hard for me at that time because my daughter was in and out of the hospital. She is an excellent girl student, her illness changed her a great deal. The illness changed her a lot. I was desperate because I didn't know how to handle the whole Situation.
In the meantime, I saw an advertisement of a NAMI family counseling course so I joined the session. After taking the course, I learnt how to identify mental illness and finding the right medicine to tackle the problem is really difficult and time consuming. If the person gives up in the middle of the treatment, it would cause a lot of problem. Many tragedies happened because the patients didn't have enough support.
Zhou: How is your daughter now? Is she better?
Peng:Yes, she acts normal and we can communicate like we used to do before.
That was the time when I was gardening and she came from behind and asked me why I was not wearing gloves. Hearing her saying something as simple as that but yet it is so like her before, my tears flowed down my face because I realized that my daughter is back!
Some people may wonder why I would have that reaction. My daughter and I have always supported each other ever since my husband’s alcohol abuse.
My daughter took good care of me! When she was very young and I came home late, she would say to me like: “Why didn’t you call?” “ Do you know that I would worry about you?” She was only nine and she said these words like a mother to her child.
I used to be busy at work. And have to work 7 days a week. My daughter would prepare breakfast for me on weekends, that's how she express her love to me. But after she was sick, she could not take care of me anymore. So when she showed her concern about me not wearing gloves. I knew that her medicine was taking in effect, my daughter was back again.
Mental illness are treatable with the right kind of medicine
Zhou: Do you think the concept of mental illness on society needs to be changed?
Peng: There are some bias toward mental illness in the society. Some people may be terrified about the mental patients. Actually it is only an illness, the behaviors of people changed only because the illness affects their brain. We go to the doctor when we feel physically ill, it should be the same when the brain is ill.
When you look at the photos of our events, the girls are all beautiful. They are all mental patients but and their sicknesses have been properly controlled. Everybody should show their support towards these beautiful girls to that have overcome their illnesses. They are all brilliant as long as they undertake proper treatment. Discrimination creates a negative label effect which will only make the situation worse.
Once at the hospital, I saw my daughter couldn't walk properly, I felt really nervous. After taking the NAMI course, I learnt that it was because the side effect of the medicine she was taking made it difficult for her to control her leg muscle and balance when she walks. But the problem can be solved with other medicine. This tells us that we don't need to be too nervous about the malfunction during the treatment, it can be solved.
Zhou: Did you become a volunteer after you take the NAMI classes?
Peng:Yes, after becoming a volunteer, I took a lot of training. With all the training programs, I have learned that most Asians has very little knowledge about mental illness. I, myself is a good example. During the 20 years, my husband felt that he was flawless, but at the same he was also pessimistic. He was not willing to do anything. If he had the chance to get help from doctors, it would not end in tragedy.
Taking medicine can help a person resume back to a normal life
Zhou: Since you volunteer at NAMI for many years with many Chinese families, are there any memorable experiences?
Peng: As a volunteer, I certainly hope that what I am working on will have positive effect. For example, there was a couple, they had bad relationship because the wife tended to take on a fight about some little things. Her husband never thought of mental problem. Until the time they came to seek help from NAMI, he stated said that deep down inside, he felt something unusual was happening. I advised them to take mental assessment with the psychiatrist.
They listened to my advice and his wife started taking medicine. 3 months later, there was a significant improvement on their relationship. I was delighted and told them they were very lucky. Because they had seek help from the professionals, not like in my case. It was a good way to try to find the problem and to solve it. But most of the families don't know what their true problem is.
Not long ago, there were a family, their daughter became sick. She could not eat or drink for more than 10 days, she was dying. Through the training programs, we all know that we can activate the 5150 act to call the police. However, the husband insisted that it was not about mental problem. He resisted to contact police because he thought the policemen were "supposed to catch illegals".
When the professionals couldn't persuade them, they turned to NAMI. Then, I talked over the phone with the wife for 2 hours, I finally persuaded her. The most important thing I told her is that "You are trying to help your daughter when you call the police. What you do will never harm your daughter. You need to save her as soon as possible because her vital signs is becoming very weak. There is no time left." She made her husband to call and the emergency personnel arrived and saved their daughter’s life.
We went through a lot of cases from the support group. We often come across patients who were unwilling to undertake treatment. My daughter had the similar situation before. There are a lot of skills for their family members learn in order to assist them. To persuade them taking medicine will help their loved one go back to their normal life, with this reason, most of them will be willing to do so.
Also, there is Mr. Frank that you have already met before. His family was suffering because of his son’s illness. When the couple came to NAMI to seek help, they always kept their heads down, you can literally tell the unhappiness from their talks. They felt hopeless for their son's future. We let them know that in fact their son's illness can be controlled. Parents need to be under control step by step, Parents need to improve their communication skills, they need to stay focus on what is the best for their son. One and a half year later, there were improvement within their family, they all can communicate effectively again with the same goal.
Seeing the smile on the patients face, seeing them regain their confidence in life, are my motivation of being a volunteer.