War trauma and Vietnamese Americans: the first study of its kind in progress

The cognitive health of 500 Vietnamese Americans from Northern California will be tracked for 5 years in a first-of-its-kind study.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Along a two-mile stretch of Stockton Boulevard in South Sacramento, you can feel the pulse of the city’s Vietnamese American diaspora: Little Saigon.

It was here in the late 70s and 80s that refugees from the Vietnam War rebuilt their lives. But before this bustling neighborhood was created, there was a period of darkness.

“If we ever got into a situation where we didn’t think we would make it, she would kill me first and she would go with me,” said Duy Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee and UC Davis graduate, telling a story. suicide pact with his mother. made.

“I think most people are shocked by that – like, it’s such bad parenting, isn’t it? But I think if you’re not in that situation, you can’t judge” , did he declare.

Nguyen described it as a situation of sheer desperation to escape communist Vietnam.

“Escape is the best word for it because you’ve been persecuted, you’ve been hunted down by the police,” Nguyen said.

After landing six times in jail as he tried to flee, he said on the seventh attempt, his mother, who was 23 at the time, bribed smugglers to take them on an ocean voyage . Nguyen was only five years old.

“Darkness is so prevalent in memory,” Nguyen said.

It was a trip that lasted a year, a time he remembers seeing very little sunshine. His family and 40 others trekked through the jungle, waded through choppy waters and traveled under the cover of night.

“We were always kind of locked in a kind of hole,” Nguyen said. “He was also filled with horrible memories of being like in a garbage truck. You know, witnessing an execution.”

Nguyen still remembered the human moments along the way – his mother giving him scraps of food, a stranger hoisting him above the sea waters. These were memories he would never forget.

After spending time in a refugee camp in Malaysia, Nguyen was eventually able to reach an American Embassy in the Philippines to obtain sponsorship papers in the United States.

“We arrived at the airport with three trash bags,” Nguyen recalls. “And that was all we had, and that’s how we started America.”

As a newcomer, Nguyen faces new challenges. He didn’t speak at school for two years, but he did at home. His traumatic memories fleeing Vietnam had emerged in an early disorder known as selective mutism.

“I was kind of completely cut off from any kind of cultural lifeline,” Nguyen said. “Certainly as the dominant theme of refugees is trauma.”

His experiences ultimately inspired him to pursue a career in psychiatry to serve marginalized communities, realizing that he carried his trauma throughout his life.

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Today, years if not decades later, the traumas of war are still present and salient for many. Dr. Oanh Meyer, an associate professor in the UC Davis department of neurology, said she started noticing changes in her mother as soon as she approached her 70s.

“One of his main fears and symptoms was just this paranoia about Vietnamese communists or vehicles outside our house,” Meyer said. “So she always closed the blinds, closed the windows.”

She said it was like her mother’s wartime memories as a young woman were repeating themselves.

“She always talked about how she had to run underground when there was bombing in Vietnam. I knew something was wrong,” Meyer said.

Meyer’s mother was diagnosed with dementia seven years ago.

“While their short-term memory is affected, their long-term memory remains intact,” Meyer said.

While researching caregiver stress, she noticed troubling trends among Vietnamese Americans like her mother. Vietnamese Americans are the fourth largest Asian group in the United States and are at critical risk for poor physical and mental health, according to Meyer. A significant portion lives with depression due to war and resettlement. Meyer is on a mission to find out more.

“We really don’t know much about the prevalence of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease among older Vietnamese. I think it’s really important for the AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) communities to have a voice “, said Meyer.

She now leads the first of its kind longitudinal study of 500 Vietnamese Americans in Northern California over the age of 65 with a $7.2 million grant from the National Institute on Aging. Its goal is to examine potential links between the Vietnam War refugee experience and cognitive impairment. Participants’ cognitive health will be tracked for five years.

What is the prevalence of dementia in this group? What are the factors associated with dementia? These are questions that Meyer tries to get answers to.

Through a Sacramento partnership, some participants are interviewed at Asian Resources Inc. in South Sacramento, headquartered in the heart of Little Saigon.

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“I think what we learn from Vietnamese Americans could help us understand other refugees and their vulnerability to health and health disparities,” Meyer said.

She was initially surprised that there was a waiting list join his study, as mental health is a taboo subject in Asian communities.

“I think there’s just this cultural value of saving faith…saving faith for yourself, for your family, for your community,” she said.

One thing Meyers and Nguyen found in their work is that representation matters. Nguyen said it was finally about telling your story.

“They feel like I’m not alone.”

Click on HERE to learn more about Vietnam’s Insights to Aging (VIP) program.

Click on HERE to read the recently published study by Dr. Meyer’s team titled “Impact of War and Resettlement on Vietnamese Families Facing Dementia: A Qualitative Study” in the Clinical Gerontologist.

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