“过去，亚裔社区很长时间，都是不太谈起精神健康的话题的，对精神健康的认知也比较低，但最近几年有明显的好转。”纽约市卫生局公共资讯发言人宋怡帧说，2018年开始，纽约市卫生局开始在华裔社区普及精神健康知识。“疫情开始之后，我们特别设计推出了名为‘疫情中的社区对话’ （COVID-19 Community Conversation）的线上讲座，从7月开始第一场讲座至今已经举办了超过50场，提供精神健康相关知识，以普通话、广东话讲解，就是特别考虑到社区的长者群体。”
（The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations and the Silver Century Foundation）赞助的系列节目中，我们特别关注在过去一年的疫情里，亚裔老人的精神健康经历了怎样的危机，同时，一起寻找如何获得各方的帮助，像保护我们的身体健康一样，守护我的精神健康。
Mental Health of Asian Elderly in the Pandemic: Facing the Mental Health Crisis
"All of suddenly, I felt sick. I couldn't sleep at night and didn't eat well during the day. At that time, I lost almost ten pounds at once."
Yuejuan Jia, originally from Shanghai, China, lives with her husband, her daughter, son-in-law, and grandson. At the beginning of March last year, when the pandemic hit, Yuejuan felt extremely nervous: "I heard a lot about COVID-19. I felt very nervous and afraid of catching the virus." In April and May, as the pandemic was getting worse, Yuejuan felt more nervous. This feeling of worrisome even affects her physical health. "I can’t sleep at night and always feel like I was have a fever. I put a thermometer on the side of my pillow to take temperature from time to time. I didn’t tell my family, I don’t want them to worry about me." Although Yuejuan didn't say it, her family could clearly seel her changes. Her husband, Lequn Yu, recalled that during that time, he noticed her wife’s mental stress and don’t know how to help her: "She was easily getting nervous during the day whenever there was a visitor or a delivery. I tried very hard to comfort her, but seems useless."
Yuejuan's experience may also be the common experience of many people during the pandemic. According to a report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40% US adults have experienced a mental health crisis during the pandemic. "There were more than 40,000 cases of anxiety and depression in 2020, and over 70% in all cases was caused by isolation." Echo Song, Public Information Speaker of Division of Mental Hygiene, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, revealed that in a NYC Health Opinion Poll from May 2020, 44% of NYC adults reported symptoms of anxiety related to COVID-19;and many report symptoms of
depression. These factors put many adults at high risk of developing mental illness.
"Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve seen a rapid increase in patients diagnosed with anxiety and depression." Dr. Xiaochun Lu, a psychiatrist in Chalse B. Wang Community Medical Center, said: " There used to be many senior centers in the metropolitan area of New York. For many Asian elderly, Senior Centers played an important role in their social lives. But since the pandemic, the centers closed down and seniors had to stay at home.” In addition, seniors are at higher risk of serious illness if infected, which brings them even more mental stress. "Lots of patients would have no history of mental wellbeing issues, but are now experiencing serious anxiety and loss of sleep. "
Hong Yao lives with her parents who are both in their 80s. Before the pandemic, her parents would go to the elderly center five or six days a week. Every morning around 7 o’clock, a car from the senior center pick them up, then they enjoy their breakfast and lunch at the center with old friends. After chatting, doing some exercise and activities, they go home in the afternoon. "We heard a lot about the pandemic in March last year. Since the elderly center was still open, my parents insisted on going there. My two children were already at home, they often questioned why the grandparents were still going out." Hong recalled: "My parents stopped going to the senior center a week before they closed. The senior center called and informed us that they closed. Only later, we learned that their driver and the staff all had COVID-19.” Not going out does reduce the risk, but Hong’s parents did not have the opportunity to communicate with friends. "At first the senior center tried to continue some of the activities online. But quickly ran into a lot of issues. " Yao Hong said that many times he couldn't even help his parents solve technical problems with computers: "When the government closed down, senior centers also followed suit, the online activities paused for almost a year. Boredom started creeping in as the pandemic dragged along."
"There are indeed little specific metrics or criteria in the mental health. How do we properly measure the mental wellbeing?" Dr. Xiaochun Lu, who served the Chinese American community for many years as a psychiatrist, explained: " We often resort to looking at the functions. For example, emotional instability or changes in behavior. These changes are very obvious. If you notice that your family members or seniors are experiencing or lost appetite, if you notice these two changes, the first person you can call for help is your primary care doctor."
Dr. Henry Chen, the President of SOMOS Community Care and a primary care doctor who served the Chinese community for more than twenty years, said that since the beginning of the pandemic, he has seen a large number of elderly people suffered from mental health issues. "We encountered a very common situation. The patients were coming for physical examinations, but started sobbing when we asked in details.And then they would start to tell you they can’t fall asleep during the night." Dr. Chen mentioned that in the Chinese community, there is a shortage of psychiatrists. And even fewer can speak Chinese, Cantonese, and Fuzhou dialect, while psychiatrists highly depends on language in diagnoses and treatments. Therefore, in many cases, primary care doctors play a role of "half psychiatrists": "We are not professional psychiatrists, but we are the first doctors who communicate and treat the patients. I will talk to them and try to solve some problems. If the symptom is mild, we can prescribe some light medication, to help them overcome the diffcuilties. If it doesn’t work, we will refer the patient to a psychiatrist.”
"Usually, we don’t talk about mental health issues in Asian communities, and the awareness of mental health was relatively low, but in recent years there has been a significant improvement." Echo Song said that since 2018, Division of Mental Hygiene, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene launched several programs to rise the awareness of mental health in Chinese communities. "Espeically during the pandemic, we designed and launched an online seminar called COVID-19 Community Conversation. Since our first session on July 1st, 2020, we’ve hosted more than 50 presentations in Cantonese and Mandarin, with special consideration for the elderly in our community."
"Suppose when we are dealing with diabetes, it is common to read and learn a lot about the disease, to prevent or lower the risk of getting diabetes. Our reaction should be the same towards mental health diseases. " Echo said: "Today, it is impossible to talk about health without mentioning mental health. There is no health without mental health.”
May is Asian Heritage Month and Mental Health Awareness Month. We launched our special programs paying attention to the crisis in the mental health of Asian elderly people during the COVID pandemic in the past year. The program is sponsored by The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations and the Silver Century Foundation. We hope to promote the mental health while call for more attention to the equal access to the mental health resources.