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Study Examines Mass Trauma Among Vietnamese Refugees - 2002-09-18

A new study shows that the mental health of Vietnamese refugees in Australia is good, despite any trauma they may have suffered from war and displacement. But a small minority of refugees still suffers some emotional anguish.

The 1975 communist victory in Vietnam caused 1.5 million Vietnamese to flee to the west.

Past studies of refugees from Vietnam or other nations have shown high levels of stress and psychiatric disorders. But those measured the refugees' emotional state soon after they had experienced trauma and displacement, and while they were living in abnormal conditions in refugee camps or had just resettled in an unfamiliar country.

But do such emotional disorders persist? That is a key question in the psychology of mass trauma victims. Now, new research in the journal The Lancet helps answer that question. It shows that Vietnamese refugees who have lived in Australia an average of about 11 years are generally mentally healthy.

"The overall story of the adaptation in the Vietnamese community is a very good picture," Mr. Steele said.

University of New South Wales psychologist Zachary Steele says that, in fact, the refugees are mentally better off as a group, than the general Australian population.

He and colleagues surveyed nearly 1,200 adult refugees, using the questions and techniques of an earlier national mental health survey. They found that eight percent of the Vietnamese reported suffering a mental disorder such as depression or anxiety in the previous year compared to 20 percent of the broader population.

"It's difficult to know whether it's something about Asian culture or the Asian population or in our case, it may just be that refugees are extremely resilient as individuals," Mr. Steele said.

Nevertheless, the Australian scientists found a subgroup of Vietnamese refugees with a high degree of mental distress, generally those who had suffered the most trauma. Mr. Steele says the finding is important because some experts have argued that the effects of mass trauma and the need for special psychiatric services have been overstated.

"What our research suggests is that in the majority of cases, that will resolve naturally across the course of time, he said. "But there still is a group of individuals who have been exposed to severe trauma who will develop chronic psychiatric conditions. So there needs to be the provision of specialist torture and trauma services for those individuals."

Mr. Steele said Australia has established such centers in each state. He argues that his findings can help guide Western societies and aid organizations when dealing with post-conflict societies.