By Sarah Yee
Northwest Asian Weekly
In her cozy office in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, Dr. Cindy Chen has shared countless conversations with clients. She is willing to talk about many issues in life — interpersonal relationships, gambling addiction, low self-esteem — as long as clients are willing to open up.
“My goal or my passion is to bring the awareness of psychological or mental health issues to the Asian population,” said Chen. “Based on my studies and my research, I know that the Asian population experiences the same kinds of stressors as other ethnicities, whites, or other minority groups. We have family problems, we have self-esteem issues, [and] we have identity issues. We have unemployment stress, cultural relation issues, adjustment problems. It’s all the same. But Asians [seem] to Caucasians as though we are problem-free because most Asians don’t talk about it. Asians just don’t talk about problems they are experiencing. ”
Chen’s private practice opened in September 2009, but she has been in the field of psychotherapy for more than three years. Previously, she had established a career as a manager in the business sector.
It all changed when a family member of hers became “too emotionally distressed to function,” said Chen. “Several years ago, I set out to find help and began to study psychology. Before I knew it, I was hooked by my newfound knowledge. Eventually, I decided to return to school to pursue formal training in order to help those who also experience challenges in psychological functioning.”
Chen considers herself a bicultural person who can use her Chinese and Taiwanese background to communicate with clients. According to a study done in 2005 by Bryan Kim at the University of California, Santa Barbara, clients who consult with a counselor who has a matching worldview, rather than an opposing one, are more likely to find an effective therapy.
The fear of many Asians in seeking counseling services may have come from the model-minority mentality. Kim, who is an associate professor in counseling, clinical, and school psychology, noticed that individuals with more traditional Asian values are less willing to seek counseling services. Asian cultures tend to relate mental illness to family shame. Counseling is an admission that these problems exist.
“If we have physical problems, we go see a medical doctor. Physical problems are oftentimes more visible. You can see a cut, you can see a broken leg, or somebody is coughing. It’s easy to say, ‘I need some help,’” Chen explained. “Psychological problems are not visible, except they manifest in people’s behavior.”
“We all know that early detection and treatment of physical problems lead to better outcomes. The same is true for psychological problems,” said Chen.
In many cases, talking to friends and family may be comforting, but it is not a solution.
To treat clients who struggle with traumatic memories, Chen uses a method called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). It utilizes a machine shaped like a telescope, with lights blinking from one end to the other. When patients move their eyes from left to right, the machine helps facilitate communication between their right and left brains. Thus, the machine helps them untangle traumas that they have a hard time coping with.
Chen is realistic and honest with her clients. For example, if a family issue has been brewing for 25 years, it is not something that a couple of pills or a couple of weeks can solve. However, she sees hope in every client, and she teaches her techniques, such as relaxation and stress-coping, to her clients.
Regarding the most challenging part of her career transition, Chen said, “To quit as a professional and transition into being a student.”
As a clinical psychologist, Chen is required to continue her education in order to retain her license. However, it does not feel like an obligation to her. “This is a field I can study until the day I die,” she said.
A huge obstacle in the beginning for Chen was setting personal boundaries. “In the very beginning, when I first started training, I was taking everything in, feeling sorry for the client, wanting to help them. But the problems were so severe. How could I help?” she said.
Over time, Chen realized that she had to first take care of herself. “Eventually, I learned to set some boundaries, so I could help them professionally. I care greatly about my clients, but I couldn’t get sucked into their sorrows because that doesn’t help them. I learned to become engaged, but not emotionally involved,” she said.
Chen is very interested in Chinese medicine. She notes that Chinese medicine is very holistic. It looks at the body, mind, and spirit as being interconnected.
“One of my dreams is to provide comprehensive services to clients for their physical and mental health. I want to have a group of specialists and providers to work together as a team and provide one-stop services for clients,” said Chen. ♦
For more information, visit www.drcindychen.com.
Sarah Yee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.