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Having grown up in the shadow of frequent teen suicides on the Caltrain tracks, Joyce Ho spent her year as a Bay Area Schweitzer Fellow working to improve the mental health status of Asian American teens in Santa Clara County.

“Asian Americans are the least likely racial group in the country to seek mental health services, and recent studies show that the rates of suicide in teenage Asian American women are soaring,” she says.

Now, as the inaugural Stanford-NBC News Global Health Media Fellow, the Stanford University School of Medicine student and Schweitzer Fellow for Life has the opportunity to shine a spotlight on similarly pressing health-related issues both at home and abroad. Over the next year, she’ll be partnering with individuals including Dick Thompson (the current editor at Health Affairs) and Dr. Nancy Snyderman (Chief Medical Editor at NBC News) to promote dialogue about global health issues—and she’ll be sharing her experiences along the way on her new blog and Twitter feed.

In today’s installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow,” we chat with Ho about her Schweitzer Fellowship experience, the destigmatization of mental health issues, and the importance of preventive medicine.

Why did you decide to develop your particular Schweitzer project?

Having grown up in Palo Alto, California, I have seen firsthand the effects of the tragic teen suicides on the Caltrain tracks. I went to high school in this area, and I know the intense pressures that students face to excel in academics and extracurriculars, all while keeping smiles on their faces to hide the stress.

In Asian American cultures especially, “stress” and “mental health” are highly stigmatized to the point where kids cannot talk to their parents about such issues. Asian Americans are the least likely racial group in the country to seek mental health services, and recent studies show that the rates of suicide in teenage Asian American women are soaring. Because of my own personal ties to the Asian American community here, I felt inspired to focus my Schweitzer project on a series of wellness workshops designed to teach Asian American high school students at Monta Vista High the proper ways to handle stress.

What was the lasting impact of your project on the community it served?

All the students who participated enjoyed the Asian American Wellness Program (AAWP), as they found the workshops useful and the relationships they formed with their college mentors very beneficial. Richard Prinz, Head Student Advocate at Monta Vista, agrees that the program filled a niche that was missing in the school curriculum, and we hope to continue AAWP in the future.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

I think the most pressing health-related issue at the moment is lack of preventive medicine in chronic disease conditions. More and more now, non-communicable diseases are becoming a growing problem not only in the U.S., but also in developing countries around the world. We need to take action now to focus on preventive medicine before the healthcare system is overwhelmed with the consequences of chronic diseases.

What was the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?

My most surprising finding in my Schweitzer experience was how easy it is to get others passionate about and involved in my project. Mental health in teens is a highly overlooked issue, but I found that many groups I talked to (schools, parents, students, etc.) were surprisingly receptive to discussion about the topic. This reaction made me feel like a culture shift is underway, and the destigmatization of mental health will be achieved in the near future.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow for Life mean to you?

I already know that service will be a strong component of my future career as a physician, whether in global health or here in the U.S. Being a Schweitzer Fellow for Life means I will have the support of the Fellowship program in whatever projects I tackle. A Fellow for Life also has contacts for life, and I know that no matter where I end up, I can easily find other healthcare professionals to collaborate with on projects through this amazing alumni network.

Ho is a Schweitzer Fellow for Life in California. Click here to read more about the Bay Area Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Velazco it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects. To make a gift to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship in honor of Ho’s efforts to improve the mental health of Asian American teens in the Santa Clara area, click here.

Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.

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