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Bridging the Gap: Dental Programs Pioneer Mental Healthcare for Chinese American Seniors

California — specifically the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles — is home to one of the largest Asian populations in the United States, second only to Hawaii. In the San Francisco Bay area, approximately one-third of the Asian population is Chinese. The COVID-19 era brought unique challenges to Chinese Americans, with older adults particularly affected by health issues, isolation, and an increase in hate crimes. Innovative programs are now addressing these challenges through a combination of dental and mental healthcare, offering new hope and support for this vulnerable population.

A Community in Crisis

The lockdown exacerbated existing issues for Chinese American seniors in Oakland and San Francisco, home to two of California’s largest Chinese American communities. These seniors faced not only health risks from the pandemic but also mental health challenges due to increased isolation and targeted violence. In response, nonprofits have been delivering mental health support through familiar settings and languages, with a focus on early intervention, according to a recent article published by KALW Public Media.

For more than 50 years, Oakland’s Asian Health Services (AHS) has provided primary healthcare in multiple languages. More recently, AHS has integrated mental health services, recognizing the cultural sensitivities required to support Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. The AHS wellness center, opened in 2017, is the first in the country to combine dental and mental healthcare in a unified approach.

The Dental-Mental Approach

AHS’s innovative dental-mental approach begins when a senior visits a dental clinic for a routine check-up. During the check-in process, they complete a nine-question mental health survey. High scores on this survey trigger a referral to a behavioral health team member, integrating mental health care into a visit that might otherwise focus solely on dental health.

The AHS dental clinic serves more than 600 older adults annually. Of these, about 5% show signs of mental illness, and nearly all agree to speak with a counselor. This approach not only identifies mental health issues early but also normalizes mental healthcare in a familiar setting. The success of this model has led to its replication in approximately 50 sites nationwide.

Early intervention and innovative approaches are essential in supporting the mental health of Chinese American seniors. Programs like those at AHS demonstrate the effectiveness of integrating mental healthcare into dental settings. As funding priorities shift, it is crucial to maintain support for these preventive programs to ensure long-term health and wellness. Click here to read more.

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