By Anna Fisher-Pinkert

When Mai See Yang was a kid, her dad didn’t talk much about his life before he came to the United States. She knew her parents were refugees, like the many other Hmong immigrants in her hometown of Fresno, California. It was only later that she learned that her father had been a child soldier in Laos in the 1970s.

Inspired by her father and his generation of survivors, Yang is working to understand the long-lasting consequences of wartime trauma. Last month, Yang became the first Hmong student to graduate with a PhD in gerontology from UMass Boston. This is her fourth degree.

Yang’s research focuses on the particularly high rates of depression and other mental illnesses in older Hmong adults. She connects this high rate of mental illness directly to the experience of Hmong families during the Vietnam War.

During the height of the Vietnam War, the United States authorized a second, “secret” war in Laos, where the CIA recruited ethnic minorities, Hmong people included, to fight against communist forces and cut supply lines to the North Vietnamese. Hmong people fought on both sides of the conflict, but by some estimates the number of Hmong soldiers fighting for the United States reached 40,000 at the peak of the war. Many Hmong people later fled to Thailand, where they lived in abject poverty in refugee camps. In the mid-1970’s, Hmong refugees started coming to the United States through resettlement programs. There are about 250,00 ethnic Hmong in America, most of whom live in California or Minnesota.

The Hmong families who made it to the United States did not fare as well as other refugees from Vietnam and Laos. Hmong families have higher rates of poverty than other Southeast Asian groups.

“Many Hmong people entered the United States with trauma, with low education levels,” Yang said. “Plus, it can be traumatic to navigate the system itself.”

Yang’s research shows that due to a history of trauma, a lack of formal education, and difficulty navigating American institutions like hospitals and schools, many Hmong people have struggled to find steady jobs and support their children.

“When you’ve had an initial trauma, and then a secondary trauma comes along, like death in the family or loss of income, it can be very hard to recover,” Yang said. “Hmong refugees coming to America often felt like they were losing their identities.”

Yang found that access to social support can help stave off depression. However, there are many barriers for Hmong people trying to get help for depression or PTSD, and mental health issues often go undiagnosed. Many of these barriers are cultural. Hmong people ascribe to shamanistic healing practices, which don’t use the same terminology as Western medicine.

“In Hmong culture, when someone isn’t sleeping or eating, or is withdrawn, that’s understood as having ‘liver issues,’” Yang said.

Yang also notes that there isn’t a good translation for “depression” in the Hmong language. When working at a hospital in California prior to starting her PhD, Yang observed a doctor speaking to an elderly Hmong patient’s son, rather than the patient himself. Yang says it is common for American doctors to address the family member with the best English skills, which means that they might not get the full picture of a patient’s health.

“Everyone should have the opportunity to age well and with respect,” she said.

Yang says that at UMass Boston, she found a community of scholars who supported her research. She was mentored by Jan Mutchler in the Gerontology Department at the McCormack Graduate School, and Peter Kiang in Asian American Studies. Yang’s research was very personal to her, and she appreciated her mentors’ ability to help her do research that was both scientifically rigorous and culturally respectful.

“My mentors wanted us to learn and explore together in the spirit of research,” Yang said. Mutchler describes Yang as an impressively determined student who wants to make a difference in the world.

“Mai See didn’t let anything stand in her way as she developed her skills here at UMass Boston,” Mutchler said. “Her work will yield a positive impact for Hmong older adults, as well as others who have been impacted by trauma and refugee experiences.”

When Yang walked across the stage at Blue Hills Bank Pavilion to receive her diploma, her father was watching. All of his ten children have bachelor’s degrees or higher. Yang hopes that she can bring the expertise she has gained through her PhD back to her community.

“I want to give a voice to my dad, and to his cohort,” Yang said.