Sunset Park Seniors May Lose Mental Health Services 

(Photo by Atelier Ying, Creative commons license)

(Photo by Atelier Ying, Creative Commons license)

To Chinese people, mental health problems are a cultural taboo that few would like to talk about. Some people have no knowledge of depression and other psychological problems. And even those who are aware of these diseases are often too shy to go to the doctors. In the U.S. the suicide rate among women 75 years and older is higher for Asians than for any other ethnic group.

But a new mental health services program for seniors that the city’s Department of Health is launching doesn’t include the Chinese concentrated neighborhood Sunset Park in the priority neighborhoods that need services.

The Program to Encourage Active, Rewarding Lives, or PEARLS, will replace GMHI (Geriatric Mental Health Initiative), the current senior mental health services program offered by the DOH. [Editor’s note: PEARLS is a depression management program developed at the University of Washington. It emphasizes in-home counseling to help seniors control their depression. The program has been adopted by many local governments nationwide.]
Wai Yee Chan, director of the Brooklyn branch of the Chinese-American Planning Council which provides mental health services to seniors in Sunset Park, said the new program could affect seniors in the area profoundly. Chan said every year his program provides services to nearly 800 underserved seniors in Sunset Park. But the DOH’s new program didn’t list Sunset Park as a neighborhood that’s underserved. As a result, it will not only be more difficult for seniors in this neighborhood to get mental health services, but the funding for current cases could also be stopped. “Our social workers have been dealing with hundreds of cases. If we lose the funding in July, the seniors we are serving now will be left in a dire situation,” said Chan.
Carolina Rodriguez, spokesperson for the DOH, said after PEARLS is in place, seniors in Sunset Park will still be able to get services through the program, or they can get services via the Mental Health Service Corps. She said the DOH selected PEARLS because evidence has shown the program can effectively alleviate depression among seniors. Also the program provides culturally competent in-home counseling that can be helpful to people from different cultures, including new immigrants.
But Chan didn’t agree. He said the evidence that supports PEARLS was collected among English speaking seniors in Washington State, and it may not apply to a racially diverse city like New York. And that is especially a concern among the Chinese. In Chinese culture, mental illness is often synonymous with “crazy.” So Asian seniors rarely seek help voluntarily. The mental health services program at CPC often has to start with some mental health related workshops or via the process of helping seniors to apply for welfare. Service providers only start discussing with seniors their mental health issues after they build up trust with the seniors.
PEARLS doesn’t include education and awareness raising and only provides funding for in-home counseling. Chan said that won’t work in the Chinese community. “We often tell our seniors to not open the door for strangers. How can you expect them to open the door for counselors they don’t know, let alone discuss their mental health problems with them?” said Chan.
Carlos Menchaca, the Council member representing Sunset Park, wrote a letter to the DOH recently, asking the agency to reconsider adopting PEARLS. In the letter, Menchaca noted the program doesn’t fit the needs of multiracial New York, and asked the DOH to maintain the current mental health service program in Sunset Park.
If PEARLS is adopted, the current mental health service program in Sunset Park will be terminated in July.

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