By Tom Stoelker
Winnie Kung, Ph.D., associate professor of social work in the Graduate School of Social Service, has been awarded more than $600,000 to study the mental health of the Asian community working or living in the vicinity of the World Trade Center following the 9/11 attacks.
In the weeks and months following Sept. 11, 2001, there was plenty of media coverage about the effects that events would have on nearby Chinatown’s population. With its economy based largely on tourism and restaurants, the once-bustling area came to a standstill.
Politicians and urban planners stressed the need to incorporate the neighborhood in the massive rebuilding effort. And while One World Trade now looms above, the lingering effects on Chinatown have dropped from the media spotlight.
Nevertheless, the World Trade Center Health Registry under the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene continued to monitor the health and mental health effects and service use among those in the community exposed to the attack. The grant, awarded through the Center for Disease Control’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, will allow Kung and two co-investigators from Columbia University to analyze data collected from more than 4,800 Asians who were affected.
Kung said the data from the World Trade Center Health Registry represents a very rare opportunity to gauge the impact on those Asians and Asian Americans and the extent to which they seek mental health treatment. One reason for that is that both Mandarin and Cantonese speakers helped gather the registry information.
“Because of language barriers, the Asian American population is, in general, an underresearched group,” said Kung.
Kung said that historically, Asian Americans demonstrate a dramatic underuse of mental health services, making them the least likely among all racial groups to use services. The registry will provide Kung with three waves of data that she said could define their help-seeking patterns. Data analysis will also help with outreach in Chinese communities beyond Chinatown and beyond those affected by the 9/11 attacks.
“Asians are notorious for not seeking help,” said Kung. “It’s the issue of stigma and the issue of saving face. With this study we can find ways to reach out to them more effectively.”
Kung said she received a cold call about the potential grant from a colleague who read about her extensive research on Asians seeking mental health services, and on their mental health awareness. She said that she personally was not affected by the events of Sept. 11, and came to realize just how longstanding the effects were in Chinatown when she began to read the literature in preparation for the proposal.
She said she was particularly struck by the amount of and duration of unemployment, which lasted for years. She said the impact was related to the immigrant culture.
“While many people help each other out within the Asian community, they weren’t very well nested within the larger community. If you’re nested into the rest of the community and there’s unemployment, you can find other friends to help you out,” she said. “The Chinese community was so insulated that they were not able to access the other resources to find their way out economically, so the impact was much deeper and longer lasting.”
Kung said that the depth and breadth of the data should help create suggestions for preparing for future events.
“Forty-eight-hundred is a very good sample size, so we can analyze with many variables,” she said. “This really provides an ability for more sophisticated analysis.”
As the World Trade Center Health Registry is an ongoing study, it will continue to make a difference in the years to come, she said.