Hmong garden praised for mental health impact - Fresno, CA

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Hmong garden praised for mental health impact

- The Fresno Bee

Monday, Jul. 30, 2012 | 11:40 PM

A day after The Associated Press reported that a Hmong garden in Fresno has seemingly little or no specific connection to mental health, the project received praise in a report prepared for the California Department of Mental Health.

The Fresno Hmong Community Garden was one of 56 programs statewide cited as a promising strategy for addressing the mental health needs of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders.

"The garden is so important," said C. Rocco Cheng, a psychologist at Pacific Clinics in the Los Angeles County city of Irwindale, who prepared the California Reducing Disparities Project report for the state Office of Multicultural Services and the Department of Mental Health.

"This is just a tool to bring them in to other services," Cheng said during an interview after presenting the draft report at Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries in central Fresno. "If people don't even come into your office, how are you going to help them?"

In a Sunday story published in The Bee, The Associated Press said Fresno County's garden program, as well as other wellness programs, such as horseback riding in Kings County and a student well-being program in Los Angeles, are being scrutinized by mental-health advocates for their value now that state funds have been reduced for treatments for the seriously ill.

Counties receive money for the wellness programs from Proposition 63, a 1% tax on millionaires as part of the Mental Health Services Act approved by state voters in 2004. By law, 20% of the money must be spent on prevention and early intervention.

Fresno County has spent $164,193 to build seven community gardens. Next fiscal year, the county has budgeted $171,620 for the gardens.

The Rev. Sharon Stanley, executive director of the interdenominational ministries, said the garden program has served about 750 people in the past year. Gardeners and their families can attend mental health workshops each month that include information about mental illnesses and resources available in the community, she said. The ministries oversee five of the seven gardens. In addition to the Hmong, gardens have been planted for Slavic, African-American, Hispanic and Punjab communities.

In a county survey of garden participants, 69 people from the five gardens managed by the refugee ministries responded to questions. When asked if they think less about suicide, 89% said they agreed or strongly agreed. Most respondents also said they have a better idea of where to go for help.

Donna Taylor, director of the Fresno County Department of Behavioral Health, who attended Monday's release of the disparities report, said alternative programs sometimes are a form of treatment. "I don't always believe traditional treatment always works," she said.

Prop. 63 provided the $1.5 million for the Asian Pacific Islander mental health disparity report, as well as reports for African-American, Native American, Latino and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender populations.

Cheng, the Asian Pacific Islander report author, said many of the Asian and Pacific Islanders don't know about services or have trouble accessing them. The state also lacks culturally appropriate services and enough culturally competent workers.

Many of the refugees in Fresno County struggle with issues of trauma from living in countries ravaged by war, and living in refugee camps, Cheng said. Often, they have become isolated, home-bound and depressed and the garden program brings them outside their homes, where they can rejoin the community.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6310, banderson@fresnobee.com or @beehealthwriter on Twitter.