Two recent Chinatown suicides spur outreach

BY Aline Reynolds

The worst of the recession may be over, but unemployment and economic adversity is still widespread and continues to take a mental toll on Americans, Lower Manhattanites not excluded.

Two recent Chinatown suicides have spurred Council Member Margaret Chin’s office into action; both were struggling financially in the days before their deaths. Chin called a press conference and gathered together representatives from various community non-profits that specialize in mental health for the Asian population.

Both victims, of Chinese descent, hung themselves in their homes. Xue Hong Liu, in her mid-to-late 40s, killed herself a few days before July 26, according to Chinese media reports translated by Chin’s office and sent to the Downtown Express. Liu immigrated to America in 2008 to start life anew with her husband and two children, according to one report. They lived in a three-bedroom apartment, which they shared with two other families.

But Liu far from experienced the American dream. Unable to find full-time employment, Liu was working part-time for low pay, according to the account, and her husband’s earnings were meager. Liu became depressed and sought mental help.

The second victim, Ting Fu Mui, approximately 60 years old, hung himself with a nylon rope, a day or two before July 31, according to one report.

Mui told his brother in their final conversation on July 28 that he didn’t have any money to live on, according to the report. The brother went to visit Mui at his apartment on July 31 after he wasn’t picking up his phone, according to one report, to find him dead. Neighbors noticed a stench coming from his apartment but didn’t report it to the landlord. Mui’s neighbors described him as reserved. He had worked as a chef, but it is unclear whether he was employed at the time of his death.

Citywide suicide numbers are on the rise, both among Asian residents and the city’s overall population. Fifty-six Asians and Pacific Islanders living in New York City committed suicide in 2008, compared to 24 in 2002, according to the city Department of Health’s annual summary of vital statistics.

“We have to work with our local media to educate our community about the resources and the help that is available to them,” Chin said at the press conference last Tuesday.

“We’re here to remind people that no one should be ashamed to ask for help, whether it be from public assistance, community organizations, or my office. People are welcome to get in touch with my office if they are in need.”

Chin’s office is preparing a list of all available mental health services with the hope of avoiding preventing more tragedies.

The Mental Health Association of New York, under the auspices of the city D.O.H., has confidential crisis intervention, consultation and referral services for Asian-language speaking New York City residents. It also provides a LifeNet hotline for Asians in need of urgent mental care. Asian LifeNet is partnered with medical centers around the city, including Gouverneur Healthcare Services, that send an on-call psychiatrist, a social worker and a nurse to a suicidal hotline caller’s home for immediate care.

“There are not enough mental health services for the Asian population,” said Tracy Luo, Director of Asian Outreach, who was present at the press conference.

The existing mental health services are not well-publicized, leaving many Asian city residents who don’t know about them untreated.

“If we can continue to collaborate with the media and community organizations, I think more and more people will recognize mental illness and be willing to get treatment,” Luo said.

M.H.A. plans on organizing workshops at senior centers and schools to spread the word about its hotline, she added. The group has teamed up with the city’s Department for the Aging to offer depression screening and medical referrals at upwards of 20 senior centers across the five boroughs, including the NY Chinatown Senior Center at 70 Mulberry Street.

Many of the patients that visit the Asian bicultural clinic at Gouverneur Healthcare Services (on the Lower East Side) recently lost their jobs, according to Diana Chen, director of the clinic. She said the patients then become “very nervous” to find a new job in order to keep up with debt payments and send money home to their families.

The New York Asian Women’s Center counsels and provides shelter for Asian women who suffer from domestic violence and human trafficking. Nine out of ten women and three out of ten children who come to the shelters contemplate suicide, according to a survey conducted by the center.

One suicidal woman who had been staying at one of the center’s shelters jumped onto the tracks of the 4, 5, 6 train at Union Square earlier this year. She survived the incident and was kept at St. Vincent’s Hospital for a few weeks, where the center’s counselor regularly visited her. The center also helped the woman find an apartment so that she can move out of her homeless shelter. Lee reported that she’s now doing “very well.”

“[Thinking about suicide] is common among domestic violence cases,” said Larry Lee, executive director of the center. The young women face enormous financial pressures, and many have to raise families on their own. “[They] have no escape — they have to go along with it and [endure] the bitterness,” he said.

The Center’s administrative offices are kept confidential to ensure the safety of the battered women.

Also at the press conference were representatives from Beth Israel Medical Center, the Asian American Health and Social Service Council, the Indo-China Sino-American Community Center and Asian Americans for Equality.

“People don’t know the condition they suffer is a mental disorder,” or don’t get help because of the stigma attached to it, said Teddy Chen, director of the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center, at 268 Canal Street.

“It’s very sad that it takes human [lives] to alert us.”

For more information about mental health services in Chinatown and elsewhere, call Margaret Chin’s district office at 212-587-3159.