Steinberg Institute

Healer for the Vietnamese Community Whose Path Was Forged by Pain, Trauma and Resettlement

Nothing about this year and this month is normal. But one thing, at least, doesn’t change: Heroes step up when we need them.

Every year during May, Mental Health Awareness Month, the Steinberg Institute honors a group of unsung heroes. We call them our Mental Health Champions. They are people who go above and beyond the call of duty through their tireless work on behalf of others. This month, we’re unmasking our 2020 super-heroes one at a time as we present the Mental Health Champions Class of 2020. You can meet the other champions we’ve unmasked so far here.

It wasn’t until he was in college that Paul Hoang realized why he had suffered so much pain and anguish, starting from the age of 7, and how certain experiences would trigger him. Today, he can still describe those symptoms vividly.

“Every time there were clouds or a rainstorm, my whole body would start shaking involuntarily and I’d get this intense fear and anxiety,” he says. “When I would go to a body of water or swimming pool, my body would lock up and I would sink down to the bottom of the pool. I learned how to hold my breath and climb up the ladder.”

He didn’t understand why these things happened, or why he’d be filled with anger and rage when he saw people from Thailand or heard them speak.

Then, when he was taking a psychology class at a seminary college in Iowa, he had what he calls an epiphany. “I had been experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress and major depression,” he realized. He had plenty of reasons for those feelings — and plenty of reason to eventually enter a profession where he could help others overcome their traumas.

Hoang had grown up in a tiny village in South Vietnam in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and his father had fought on the losing side. He grew up hearing stories about electric shock and other forms of torture inflicted on his father and the reprisals family members suffered when they were caught trying to flee the country. He remembers the feeling of terror when police would come to the house looking for his Dad. He calls these memories vicarious trauma, but he experienced plenty of direct trauma as well.

When he was 7, he and his father were among 27 people who fled the country on a 21-foot fishing boat. The engine broke after three days and they floated at sea for 30. They ran out of food, were attacked and robbed three times by machete-wielding Thai pirates who terrorized and threatened them. They were saved each time by the appearance of cargo ships, which gave them food but not rescue, while causing the pirates to flee. Eventually they were rescued by fishermen from Kuku Island in Indonesia and then, for the next nine months were transferred from one refugee camp to another, finally ending up in the Philippines.

They arrived in the United States in late 1989, lived in Los Angeles for a year and then settled in Riverside County. But that was not the end of his ordeals. Starting in middle school, he was teased and bullied in school, called racist names and sometimes jumped in fights. Hoang was small but he fought back, and by high school the physical attacks stopped.