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ST. PAUL — Dee Her recalls her 17-year-old brother Chengyee Alvin Her as a deep thinker and a responsible, independent young man. Alvin rarely expressed his struggles, so it was hard for her to see when mental health became a problem for him.
“He knew he was very loved. He knew that he could turn to any of us,” said Dee, adding that she never spoke of her own suicide attempt in high school but believed that if she could survive depression and suicidal thoughts, her brothers and sisters could, too.
Alvin, the youngest of her 11 siblings, did not. He killed himself in the summer — one of several suicides in the Twin Cities Hmong community in 2019 that spurred Dee and others to start a difficult but important public conversation about mental health and suicide.
40 to 85 percent of Hmong people have experienced some kind of mental health issue compared to 20 to 26 percent of the general population, according to research published in 2010 by the Wilder Foundation. Trauma from war and migration, and stress from adapting to a new culture contribute to the high rate.
“A lot of the recent suicides hit us because they’re close to home,” said Ying Xyooj, a Twin Cities physical therapist and board chair of Project Tshav Ntuj, a group working to get the community to talk openly and honestly about mental health and suicide. The group’s name roughly translates to “sunshine.”
Xyooj said when he talks to parents, he might hear, “‘Oh no, my kid’s fine. He doesn’t have that problem,’ and that may be what they truly believe in. It may be a response in not wanting to look bad and not wanting to face this thing.”
In November, when Project Tshav Ntuj hosted its first event at St. Paul’s Washington Technology Magnet School, 800 people came to hear Dee Her and others.
The event also featured music, dancing and slam poetry from high school students and longtime artists urging people to talk about mental health with friends and family.
Xyooj said he saw the outpouring of support that first night as an encouraging sign that the community is ready to open up.
Project Tshav Ntuj volunteers say they want to break through the silence on mental health, which often isn’t discussed by the older generation who may struggle with their own unaddressed trauma and not see it in their children.
“By the time we hear about the need, it’s too late. I think that’s why when Project Tshav Ntuj came about it was really, like, let’s talk about this,” said Mary Her, clinical supervisor at the Wilder Foundation who serves on the group’s board.
“How do we explore this as a community and how do we heal from it?” Her added. “Just knowing that sometimes our own families or ancestors or my grandparents have not even dealt with their trauma, and how does that still affect the mental health of our children today?”
A scarcity of recent research makes it difficult to fully understand the prevalence of mental illness in the Hmong community, according to local psychologist Alyssa Kaying Vang. Still, she notes that suicides have occurred in the community in the past, such as when eight Hmong teenagers killed themselves in California between 1998 and 2001.
While an increase in suicides is not unique to the Hmong community, “I do think that because we are a small community, the number of suicides cannot be ignored anymore,” Kaying Vang said in an email.
While the Project Tshav Ntuj team is focused now on preventing suicide among youth, Xyooj said he wants to see them grow “deep and wide” in promoting mental health as a whole.
After her suicide attempt, Dee said her mindset changed. She thought about the things that mattered to her, like her relationship with her boyfriend and best friend. Today, that’s expanded to her family, her now-husband and new baby.
“Over time, you learn to just appreciate the little things in life … Then eventually, you start to see things a little differently and you start thinking about how much it would hurt if you were to lose someone you love,” Her said.
She hopes others will learn from Alvin’s story and change their minds too.
“I don’t want his death to be in vain,” Her said. “I want something good to come out of it because we lost someone we love so dearly that hopefully that’ll discourage others who are not in a safe place mentally right now to really reflect on that.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or go to SpeakingofSuicide.com for more resources.