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Cultural Competence for Asian American and Pacific Islander Mental Health Services

Dr. DJ Ida, the Executive Director for the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association (NAAPIMHA), agreed to talk with us at the Telehealth Certification Institute about the importance of cultural competence in the mental health field. Part of Dr. Ida’s long-term vision for NAAPIMHA is to establish a national center for cultural competence where clinicians, medical professionals, students, and paraprofessionals can come together for training and supervision.

Dr. Ida envisions that the center would move beyond talk therapy and consider additional community-based interventions, since the traditional therapy model “is not the only way to heal.” At NAAPIMHA, Asian American and Pacific Islander paraprofessionals are recognized for the distinct value they can bring to their communities, even if they lack the clinical skills one might learn in the classroom. 

As an expert on culturally competent counseling, Dr. Ida has developed several other initiatives that further cultural awareness and community empowerment. The Growing Our Own program trains clinicians to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate mental health services, while Achieving Whole Health equips community members to become qualified wellness coaches. Both programs fit into NAAPIMHA’s mission to improve the health and mental health of individuals who identify as Asian American or Pacific Islander.

To reach their goals, leaders at NAAPIMHA have sought out grants that fund culturally competent services, including support for “ethnic-specific” behavioral health services. Most recently, staff at NAAPIMHA have worked with Congresswoman Judy Chu’s office of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus to “designate May 10th as National Asian American, Native Hawaiian, [and] Pacific Islanders mental health day.” Dr. Ida explained that this day is meant to “raise awareness” for the importance of mental health and to “redefine what mental health is,” and how it can affect different communities.

There has been a push by NAAPIMHA to help individuals heal through various modes of cultural expression, such as song and dance, so that people can start to think of themselves as more than a diagnosis. Dr. Ida also shares how they’ve begun “mental health awareness training” in high schools for Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander students. The project focuses on topics related to racism, mental health, and cultural identities.

Exploring these broader questions is a large piece of NAAPIMHA’s plan to increase cultural awareness for the differences that exist between individuals and communities. As Dr. Ida explained, a “fourth generation half Japanese and half Caucasian [family]” may have a very different set of concerns from “a refugee from Laos or Cambodia.” Cultural competence in counseling includes acknowledging and understanding how unique characteristics affect the delivery of a client’s care.

If you are interested in learning more, you can visit Asians in Focus, a website that is dedicated to sharing NAAPIMHA stories through artistic expression. In addition to her founding work with NAAPIMHA, Dr. Ida helped establish the Asian American Educational Opportunity Program at the University of Colorado, the Asian Pacific Development Center, and a specialty Denver clinic in her forty-year career. Clinicians are encouraged to ask what it’s like to work with the Asian community and where else they can access resources to best help their clients.

By: Michael Tugendhat

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