a documentary film by Pearl J. Park

About the Film
The Issue
About Us
Director's Statement
Photo Gallery

"Silence and invisibility go
hand in hand with powerlessness"


What does it take to heal from mental illness? Can Truong, a war refugee who was among the millions of boat people who fled Vietnam in the 1970's, was a model student—aspiring to become a doctor, when he was diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder. After years of unsuccessfully trying conventional medical treatments for his mental illnesses, Can becomes involved in the mental health consumer movement, a social and political effort by people labeled with mental illnesses who believe in recovery through self-determination and peer support. Inspired by his peers, he embarks on a healing journey of a different kind — trying to reconcile cultural differences with his very traditional Confucian father and attempts to make sense of his childhood wounds. He serves as a volunteer on numerous mental health organizations that promote recovery and explores spiritual and holistic healing modalities.  


Despite the profound stigma of mental illness, Can frequently speaks at national mental health conferences about living with his disability. Can is one of the few Asian Americans with a mental illness who is actively involved the mental health consumer/survivor movement. Though many Southeast Asians are reluctant to seek psychiatric help in fear of shaming their family, the subject of our film defies many cultural norms, tries numerous healing modalities and fights for his recovery. Can struggled to finish college over a 11-year period, finally graduating in 2002 with a degree in Marketing from Wright State University in Dayton, OH.

Graduating at the top of his class in high school in Dayton, OH, Can took college-level classes in his sophomore and junior years of high school. He got accepted into the University of Chicago. By all measures, he was a model minority, overcoming the many obstacles he faced coming to the US as refugee.

At the University of Chicago, he had problems concentrating and studying so he sought professional help. He was diagnosed with depression and later hospitalized for it. While taking an anti-depressant, he experienced a manic episode. In his mania, he bought a brand new car for $32K, and he had grandiose ideas about changing the world. He thought he could single-handedly leverage the stock market. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder and a series of attempts to keep up with his studies, he was eventually forced to leave college. Over a 12-year period, Can unsuccessfully tried more than 20 different medications and underwent 15 electroconvulsive shock treatments.

His mother thought he had no future. Since 1996, Can has been on Social Security Disability Insurance and living at home with his parents. Though he once thought he set on a path to becoming a doctor, he has never been able to support himself through full-time employment. She as a buddhist believes that Can suffers from these psychiatric disorders because he committed sins in a previous life. He is merely paying back his karmic debt. He must do good deeds and live an honorable life so that he can be reborn into a better life, she says.

Taking his mother's message to heart, Can begins to speak at national mental health conferences about supported education and self-employment for people who are on Social Security Disability Insurance. Through accommodations—extra time on exams—made possible by the American Disabilities Act, Can was able to graduate. Realizing that many other college students with disabilities need emotional support and accommodations in order to graduate, he has become a vocal advocate of supported education and teaches workshops at consumer conferences such as Alternatives, the largest consumer conference in the U.S. One of Can's biggest hopes is that it will help other college students graduate from college. The American Disabilities Act (http://www.ada.gov) entitles people with disabilities to receive certain types of accommodations, depending on the disability and the severity of the disability, in educational and occupational settings.

Because the subject of mental illness is so taboo in Asian cultures, the stories about the experience of mental illness are often left untold. The stigma mental illness exists in most, if not, all cultures; however, the research shows that the code of silence around the issues of mental health may prevent Asian Americans, who have lower rates of mental health service utilization rates than most other ethnic groups, from seeking help. Many who suffer from psychiatric problems frequently do so in silence and solitude — sometimes with enduring, painful consequences. Rarely, will Asian Americans with mental illness openly share what their experience was like, dealing with the medications, the hospitalizations, the debilitating shame of the label, and the frustrations of dealing with a health care system that doesn’t always care. Though they may live each day struggling with suicidal thoughts, uncontrollable anxieties and, sometimes unbearable, shame, they usually endure alone.

  • One out of every four Americans deals with
    a mental illness during any given year.

  • 47% of the general population will experience mental illness in their lifetime.

Someone as loved, respected and accomplished as Iris Chang, the Chinese American writer and historian, could not bear to tell her friends about her mental illness because she felt so ashamed. Iris' mother has said publicly that her tragic death might have been prevented had the family been open about her mental illness, because they probably would have found support among their friends and relatives — some of whom came forward after her death to reveal their own struggles with mental illness.

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