What does it take to heal from mental illness? The story of Can Truong

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Excerpt from an email written by the filmmaker Pearl J. Park
What does it take to heal from mental illness? Can Truong, a war refugee who was among the millions of boat people who fled Vietnam in the 1970's, was a model student, aspiring to become a doctor, when he was diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder. After years of unsuccessfully trying conventional medical treatments for his mental illnesses, Can becomes involved in the mental health consumer movement, a social and political effort by people labeled with mental illnesses who believe in recovery through self-determination and peer support. Inspired by his peers, he embarks on a healing journey of a different kind — trying to reconcile cultural differences with his very traditional Confucian father and attempts to make sense of his childhood wounds. He serves as a volunteer on numerous mental health organizations that promote recovery and explores spiritual and holistic healing modalities.  

BREAKING TABOO
Despite the profound stigma of mental illness, Can frequently speaks at national mental health conferences about living with his disability. Can is one of the few Asian Americans with a mental illness who is actively involved the mental health consumer/survivor movement. Though many Southeast Asians are reluctant to seek psychiatric help in fear of shaming their family, the subject of our film defies many cultural norms, tries numerous healing modalities and fights for his recovery. Can struggled to finish college over a 11-year period, finally graduating in 2002 with a degree in Marketing from Wright State University in Dayton, OH.

Can Truong graduated at the top of his class in high school in Dayton, OH. He took college-level classes in his sophomore and junior years of high school. He got accepted into the University of Chicago. By all measures, he was a model minority, overcoming the many obstacles he faced coming to the US as refugee.

At the University of Chicago, he had problems concentrating and studying so he sought professional help. He was diagnosed with depression and later hospitalized for it. While taking an anti-depressant, he experienced a manic episode. In his mania, he bought a brand new car for $32K, and he had grandiose ideas about changing the world. He thought he could single-handedly leverage the stock market. Can was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was eventually forced to leave college. Over a 12-year period, Can tried more than 20 different medications and underwent 15 electroconvulsive shock treatments.

His mother thought he had no future. Since 1996, Can has been on Social Security Disability Insurance and living at home with his parents. Though he once thought he set on a path to becoming a doctor, he has never been able to support himself through full-time employment. She as a buddhist believes that Can suffers from these psychiatric disorders because he committed sins in a previous life. He is merely paying back his karmic debt. He must do good deeds and live an honorable life so that he can be reborn into a better life, she says.

Taking his mother's message to heart, Can begins to speak at national mental health conferences about supported education and self-employment for people who are on Social Security Disability Insurance. Through accommodations—extra time on exams—made possible by the American Disabilities Act, Can was able to graduate. Realizing that many other college students with disabilities need emotional support and accommodations in order to graduate, he has become a vocal advocate of supported education and teaches workshops at consumer conferences such as Alternatives, the largest consumer conference in the U.S. One of Can's biggest hopes is that it will help other college students graduate from college.

ABOUT THE ISSUE
Because the subject of mental illness is so taboo in Asian cultures, the stories about the experience of mental illness are often left untold. The stigma mental illness exists in most, if not, all cultures; however, the research shows that the code of silence around the issues of mental health may prevent Asian Americans, who have lower rates of mental health service utilization rates than most other ethnic groups, from seeking help. Many who suffer from psychiatric problems frequently do so in silence and solitude — sometimes with enduring, painful consequences. Rarely, will Asian Americans with mental illness openly share what their experience was like, dealing with the medications, the hospitalizations, the debilitating shame of the label, and the frustrations of dealing with a health care system that doesn’t always care. Though they may live each day struggling with suicidal thoughts, uncontrollable anxieties and, sometimes unbearable, shame, they usually endure alone.

Someone as loved, respected and accomplished as Iris Chang, the Chinese American writer and historian, could not bear to tell her friends about her mental illness because she felt so ashamed. Iris' mother has said publicly that her tragic death might have been prevented had the family been open about her mental illness, because they probably would have found support among their friends and relatives — some of whom came forward after her death to reveal their own struggles with mental illness. Interestingly, 1 out of every 4 Americans deals with a mental illness during any given year. About 47% of the general population will experience mental illness in their lifetime.

No wonder mental illness equals violence in the minds of some people. In Dr. Frese's speech at the 2009 U.S. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association conference, he refers to an Oscar-winning and widely-viewed 1991 film about a brilliant psychiatrist with mental illness who eats people, Hannibal Lecter. "That Silence of the Lambs did not help my image at all," he joked. The impact of media portrayals on culture is inevitable and there is no escaping the resulting stigma for many people who live with mental illness. Research indicates that empathetic contact with persons with mental illness helps to decrease stigma. Films, as an emotionally engaging medium, often can serve as that empathetic contact, putting the viewer in the protagonist's shoes. "Can" is one of those rare films which features a protagonist with mental illness and offers some insights into the inner reality of a person with mental illness.

WHAT YOU CAN DO
Help reverse the tide of the mass media's myopic focus on the intersection of violence and mental illness. Every story counts. Can we outdo the impact of what the major media networks portrayals of Adam Lanza is doing? Not likely, but as Margaret Mead always said "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." 


Here are some ways you can champion Can's story and other stories about mental health recovery. 

Comments

  1. joyce parkes's avatar
    joyce parkes
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    Terrific story. Thank you Can. Very brave.
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