Mai Zong Vue is board president of the Hmong Institute. 

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The Hmong community in Madison has been hit hard with trauma over the last year. COVID-19, anti-Asian racism, loss of loved ones and fear of deportation have permeated the community and caused mental strain.

To address this need, the Hmong Institute in Madison is offering a free, virtual mental health series of workshops from Aug. 23 through Aug. 31, giving those facing emotional challenges a chance to learn new coping skills and normalize talking about mental health. 

Dr. Yee Xiong, a psychiatrist from Minnesota who is currently a UW fellow at Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison, will run workshops focused particularly on first- and third-generation Hmong (although anyone is welcome to attend).

At the center of the Hmong community is a generation of elders who were forced to flee from places like Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia after fighting alongside Americans during the Vietnam War. After the United States lost the war and withdrew troops, Hmong people faced mass genocide and extermination.

Approximately 45 years ago, the first generation of Hmong refugees settled in the United States. Wisconsin, with its rich farmland, was one of the primary destinations for Hmong refugees, many of whom were farmers.

The trauma of having fled their homes to avoid genocide has been part of the daily lives of Hmong elders who experienced it. A desire to hold onto their culture and traditions in a western community has been a source of pride but also of conflict within the community. Younger generations of Hmong have been torn between the traditions of their families and the culture of their more westernized peers at school.

Providing mental health support to those two age groups has been a particular focus of Hmoob Kaj Siab, a program at the Hmong Institute, 4402 Femrite Drive, in Madison.

“Mental health issues affect all of us, regardless of what generation you’re in,” said Mai Zong Vue, board president of the Hmong Institute. “This workshop is intended for everyone. We needed to have a dialogue and so hopefully it grows from here.”

Those existing mental health issues have been compounded by anti-Asian racism as some have blamed Asians for the existence and spread of COVID-19.

“We have people not wanting to go outside for fear of being hit or attacked,” Vue said. “Like, you go to the store and people say things like, ‘Go back home,' or you’re in the parking lot and people hit you, or you’re out voting and people look at you like you don’t belong here.”

People who used to casually stroll around their neighborhoods for an evening walk have skipped summer sunsets and retreated into the gymnasium at the Hmong Institute instead.

“Elders will come and walk around the gym to exercise and reduce their social isolation,” Vue said. “Typically, they would walk at home in the evening but now they are in fear.... Many times we have just ignored it, but it is an issue that faces us on a daily basis. So that’s why we’re doing this series of workshops.”

It is not just elders who have been having a difficult time.

“The youth are having challenges having to do with racial tension at school, bullying at school, identity issues, family expectations of them,” Vue said. “We will eventually (after this workshop) do some more youth dialogue.”

The virtual workshop schedule and topics include: how COVID-19 has impacted our well being; mental health and addiction; depression across the lifespan; and PTSD and trauma.

“This is a tremendous issue that has not been formally introduced to our community as a whole, even though we run a mental health program through Hmoob Kaj Siab,” Vue said. “It is something we want to address.”

Giving people the tools to cope is the ultimate goal, according to Vue. It's providing others with skills Vue herself uses daily.

“Personally, it’s very tough,” Vue said. “I’m glad I have some mental health skills so I can self-regulate and keep the skies from raining all the time. When everybody heals, that’s when I heal. And when my community is in pain, I’m in pain.

"That breaks my heart.”