Cultural Differences? The Birth of Psychology in Saigon

Health - Saigon/HCMC: Oct. 2, 2017

A young Vietnamese woman is pulled in two directions: on the one side, she’s just received a big promotion at work, and she’s excited about where her career is taking her; on the other, her family constantly reminds her that she has to think seriously about getting married and settling down.

The choice is ultimately up to her, but it often leads to anxiety and depression.

It’s these sorts of scenarios, involving the battle between traditional values and modern opportunities, that lead people to seek Psychotherapist Azrael Jeffrey’s services at the International Center for Cognitive Development (ICCD). “It’s about supporting them in their endeavors, and with what would make them happy, whether it be quitting their job or moving to another country,” he says.

At the moment Jeffrey and his team at ICCD are among the few fully accredited mental health practitioners in Ho Chi Minh City—but that doesn’t mean there’s not a need for them.

Vietnam’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) stated in 2016 that 30 percent of Vietnam’s population suffer from some form of mental illness, primarily depression (25 percent).

According to the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF), the rate of diagnosable mental disorders in Vietnam is 15 percent, a noticeable difference.

These wide variants point to a larger problem: an incomplete portrait of mental health issues in Vietnam.

A Shadowed History

Mental health in Vietnam has been compartmentalised. Jacqueline Langton, a psychologist with a private practice in HCMC, notes that, “Degrees and specialisation for doctors in psychiatry have been well supported here in Vietnam. In contrast, psychology is still in its infancy.”

Psychiatry was practised mainly in the form of government-run mental hospitals, which took in patients suffering from severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia and delusional disorders (60 percent of patients, according to Ministry of Health statistics), mood disorders (15 percent) and stress-related disorders (15 percent).

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Alternatively, the Western concept of help being sought during stressful times or dark life moments was completely foreign.

A stigma began to form against seeking help, although Langton notes that this is an issue in her native Australia as well.

“In Vietnam I see stigmas shifting between generations; in Vietnam a student may openly talk about experiencing depression but struggle with discussing it with their parents, or their parents may struggle sharing that information outside of their immediate relatives,” she says.

A Matter of Perception

This purveying stigma has led many to believe that psychology couldn’t be integrated into Vietnamese society as it is in North America and Europe.

When Azrael Jeffrey founded ICCD two years ago, he noticed that it wasn’t the Vietnamese who had a problem with it—it was the foreigners: “Most people thought it was silly. There was the stereotype that Vietnamese people don’t like psychology. It’s not true. They’re curious about it.”

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Both Jeffrey and Langton noted that the problem of practising psychology in HCMC wasn’t that it was frowned upon, but rather that there was no system of reference for it, leading to difficulties when it came to paperwork.

Jeffrey, for example, remembers hiring a speech pathologist—the first in the country. “Getting a work permit was hard. There was no “speech pathologist” career they could enter. It didn’t exist in Vietnam yet.”

Molding Young Minds

Right now the vast majority of formally registered psychologists in Vietnam are expatriates, but this is likely to change in the coming years.

Apart from individual sessions, Azrael Jeffrey also counsels college students, and he’s seeing more and more interest in the field of psychology.

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Rather than study in Vietnam, where counselling programs are still quite limited, Jeffrey encourages interested students to pursue their education overseas.

“When they come back in five or six years, Vietnamese psychologists will probably take the forefront here,” he predicts.

For now, it’s all about changing cultural perceptions, and this might be easier than previously supposed.

Jacqueline Langton has noticed a definite shift in the perception of psychology in her seven years in Vietnam, as has Jeffrey.

“I’ve seen tremendous change,” he says.

“When I first came here and said I was a psychologist, it would clear the room. Now I say it and people come up to me and start asking questions.”

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