Edward Cohen, San Jose State University – Teaching Students about Mental Illness in Vietnam

Mental health is a big news topic in the U.S., but not in every country.

Edward Cohen, professor at the school of social work at San Jose State University, explores mental health education in a foreign land.

Edward Cohen, Ph.D., is Professor at the School of Social Work at San Jose State University, California, and a recent Fulbright Scholar in Vietnam. He and colleagues are completing a book about their experiences working in Vietnam to improve social work education. He teaches courses on research methods and international social work, and has published extensively about mental health services for vulnerable populations.

Teaching Students about Mental Illness in Vietnam

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During a recent academic semester I lived in Vietnam and taught a course to undergraduates about mental illness, a mainstay of Western countries’ social work curriculum, but new to Vietnam’s 50 universities with social work education programs. The government wants to develop a workforce to address social problems, including mental illness. Countries in the region have not had stellar success in the area of treating mental illness, which is just as prevalent there as anywhere else in the world. It is also accompanied by much shame since the explanation of the causes of such problems stem from personal, familial, or ancestral fault. Yet there is curiosity about Western approaches and their psycho-biological foundations. Western biological approaches along with traditional healing methods are being used in clinics despite resource shortages of staffing and medicines.

For the course, bridging the cultural gap was a challenge. There was one principle that was most helpful and guided my actions throughout the course. That principle was cross-cultural dialogue, sort of an extension of the concept of critical thinking. This involves a two-way dialogue, and the teacher has to set the tone. The better teachers, I was told by faculty there, are those who are open to learning and openly discuss cultural differences rather than simply try impart expert knowledge. Asking “This is how we do it in the U.S. Do you think it would work here?” for example, provided the opportunity for meaningful dialogue and a context for students to think about the content, making the content more understandable. Despite the prevalent stigma, students and others in Vietnam appreciated the chance to talk about mental illness; it piqued their curiosity about what might work for them to ease their distress. It is this curiosity that holds out hope for improvement in how people with mental illnesses are perceived and treated.

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