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Iu-Mien Psychologist Dr. Thaen Saelee on Mental Health in the Southeast Asian American Community

Dr. Thaen Saelee, Psy. D, is a Iu-Mien licensed psychologist, EMRDRIA Certified EMDR therapist, and the CEO of Motivational Parent, a 501 (c) non-profit agency that provides parents with free training and education on using motivational interviewing with their children. She is currently based in Oregon.

Dr. Saelee at Lithia Park in Ashland, OR (Photos by Faye Saechao/SEAT)

Dr. Saelee is a refugee from Thailand who immigrated to the United States at a young age and spent most of her primary years growing up in the Bay Area. She talks to us about how she used education to pave her own way towards her passions in the mental health field, gives insight into the flaws she sees with the current mental health system and how they affect SEAAs and other marginalized groups, and also, shares advice with young SEAAs who are interested in entering the mental health profession. Read her interview below.

Dr. Saelee with her toddler, Gavin, wearing a handcrafted traditional Iu-Mien "mouc" (hat).

How do you identify yourself (ethnically or culturally)?

My name is Dr. Thaen Saelee and I am a licensed psychologist in California and Oregon. I'm currently seeing people in my private practice and also the CEO of Motivational Parenting, which is a non-profit agency that my husband and I created to provide free training and education in motivational interviewing for parents. I am also a full-time clinical supervisor at a nonprofit community mental health agency here in Oregon.

I would identify as a first-generation Iu-mien refugee. I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and my family was sponsored to come to the United States when I was around two. I also identify as an indigenous person of Southeast Asia or China because I'm of the Yao people of China.

I used to work at an Indian reservation in Northern California and found a lot of the indigenous culture and practices really felt so familiar to me and my growing up in the Iu-mien community that I was like, you know what? I am indigenous. I may not be indigenous here in the United States but I am indigenous. I really haven't embraced that aspect of my identity and my history in the past until two years after working at the Indian reservation.

"I would identify as a first-generation Iu-mien refugee. I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and my family was sponsored to come to the United States when I was around two."

I also identify as Bi-cultural and bilingual. I speak my native tongue and I speak English. I feel like I've navigated really well with both cultures. Being a Iu-mien female and living in a kind of a confined role within my own community but also having that parallel to Western society and it being pretty patriarchal.

I also self identify as an atypical ally meaning that I'm in support of anyone not fitting mainstream norms or values. Whether you're neuro-(a)typical, whether you're (non)cis-gender, or just anything that’s not fitting a box and you're okay with that then I'm okay with that also. I want to support you in that so I kind of created my “atypical ally” self identification.

When you were growing up what did you want (or still wish) to be? Did you always know you wanted to be in education?

This question feels really foreign to me. I don't quite know if it's because it's more of a Western concept. I think because of the fact that I am a refugee and I wasn't born here and

I wasn't sure of what I wanted to be and that wasn't a main focus until I entered high school. I grew up in Oakland, California but my family had relocated to Richmond/San Pablo, California. That's where I attended a unique high school called Middle College High School. At the time, they were allowing high school students to concurrently enroll in Middle College and also be able to take community college classes. You can graduate high school with an AA degree basically. It was freshman year that I took the Psych 101 class and was like, whoa, I want to learn more about psychology and human behavior and people. I didn't know what it meant to be a psychologist. I just knew I wanted to study people and behavior.

"I wasn't afforded the same kind of Hollywood childhood that it didn't really occur to me on what I wanted to be when I grew up. I feel like a lot of my growing up had to do with surviving and taking care of my younger siblings so this is a foreign concept to me, even as a doctorate level, licensed psychologist."

That led me down the road of pursuing psychology. I didn't know I wanted to do therapy or clinical work until I had volunteered to interpret for Iu-mien elders at a local methadone clinic in Oakland, California. I was a sophomore at UC Berkeley and I googled on Craigslist “Mien” and this posting for a Mien interpreter came up and I contacted the clinic and said, “Hey, I’m a college student, I have my AA degree and I'm bilingual and I want to volunteer my time.” They allowed me to take the position and within the first week, they offered me a counselor job because I was basically interpreting for their addiction assessment, their treatment planning, and doctors visits in their sessions. They were like, “Do you want to work here?” And I'm like, “Yeah, pay me for what I'm doing for free now? Yes.”

I didn't even think about what graduate school looked like until my third year in college. I was working there for a year as a counselor and then all these interns who were in their study program told me after I graduate that I should really apply for this program. Somehow the universe led me down this path to do direct services instead of research-based psychology. I guess I just walked through doors that opened up for me in my life but it all started with that volunteer work. Before that, I thought I was going to be a professor of psychology or do research. Now, I'm doing clinical work and not research work.

If you did have a piece of advice for someone who came from a similar background as you, what would you say to them if they say that they wanted to become a therapist?

My encouragement would be to not let money be an issue. I had no fear because I grew up poor so my education, my AA degree, and my bachelor's degree were free. I met all the requirements for school grants and scholarships to support my tuition.

When the doors opened up and everything was pointing for me to go get my doctorate, I jumped into it not knowing the financial consequences. I think in hindsight, if I were to give advice for people entering, I would say pick a program that is accredited that will allow you to be licensed and work anywhere you want because there's a lot of places that if you get a degree that's not a part of the APA (American Psychological Association) then it's really hard getting a job. And also you don't need a doctorate to be a therapist. You can be a master's level therapist. It doesn’t require four-years. You can just do a two-year program and that will reduce your cost by a lot.

The other thing was that I did go to a nonprofit school that was APA accredited and so they were really about the money. I didn't have a financial advisor telling me to keep my job at the methadone clinic and to keep working and just take the bare minimum for tuition and keep paying off your loans while you're in school.

If someone told me that I would have only ended up with half the price of my student loan debt that I have now.

"So I would say don't let finances get in the way but also be smart about it. Also, don't be afraid because it is a long process. No one told me that after you graduate, you have to pass your licensing exam in order to start making money."

Working in community mental health, you do not get paid and you're living paycheck to paycheck and expected to be like a starving artist. When you go to the field of mental health as the process, if it's something that you're passionate about, it goes by pretty fast. I've been in the field since 2007 so that's like 14-15 years of my life doing clinical work. It does go by pretty fast if you really enjoy the work.

Dr. Saelee at a skatepark in Ashland, OR. Roller derby helped her find her physical and mental strength.

What social, economic/financial or cultural barriers did you encounter? And how did you overcome them (if at all)?

The therapy profession is definitely very white and white-centric. It could be a matter of not having the resources or the accessibility for reaching graduate level education and getting into these professions. That was a culture shock to me in addition to just not even having a mentor. A big barrier for me culturally was not having a Mien therapist who mentor me. I Googled the heck out of the internet trying to look for a Mien psychologist to support me through this journey. I had a really hard time in my second and third year trying to finish my dissertation and I was desperate for a mentor and I did not have it.

"I felt a lot of pressure being the first person getting a doctorate in my family and even just getting a college education at that time. I felt like the professors didn't really understand my struggle and so I isolated myself and didn't reach out for help."

All this also relates to the fact that I'm a refugee and we had like less than 10 people of color in my cohort. Most of them were East Asians and only some of them were Southeast Asian. I knew they were in my cohort but I did not lean on them and they didn't lean on me. We kind of just suffered silently and tried our best to survive and get through our education so that was a big barrier. And maybe that's a part of the culture too, that you have to bear this burden by yourself and you have to navigate these uncharted waters and there's some shame in asking for help. And so it was a very isolating experience for me.

I think a lot of my professors who try to help me- they didn't fully understand my struggle of who I was, what I want to be, and what it all meant for me. I felt a lot of pressure being the first person getting a doctorate in my family and even just getting a college education at that time. I felt like the professors didn't really understand my struggle and so I isolated myself and didn't reach out for help.

What do you think are the mental health challenges that Southeast Asian Americans are facing right now? How can we break the stigma around asking for help?

Some of the mental health issues I've observed in my work were specifically with men, Southeast Asians and also, in general, all Asian Americans. From my time working at a community health agency for Asian-Americans in Oakland, as well as the BAART clinic, I see that post-traumatic stress is the main disorder. The other disorders include depression, anxiety disorder, panic attacks, and then lots of other ones like developmental delay, and Asperger's and autism. All of these are either

under-reported because of cultural reasons or barriers in assessment and treatment. When you work in a community mental health agency that specifically treats Asian-Americans and other marginalized Asian groups, what you see is that there's parts of their history that's missing and parts of their culture that's missing from their full assessment. In the clinical realm, we do what we call a case formulation. So you take that clinical interview and all the data that you've gathered from this person's history from pre-birth. You’re looking at family history of suicide, depression, substance-use; everything. Then you're looking at what it must have been like for them in their mother's stomach, any problems there. You’re looking at them from age zero to now, basically and getting a full history to try to conceptualize the person. And in a lot of the assessments that I've read in taking on these cases, that context of that person’s life is really missing. There isn’t a full and comprehensive culturally-sensitive case formulation.

"For Mien people...still kind of holding the burden of competence to educate other professionals, our friends or colleagues about “what is Mien?”

When it comes to what I’ve seen in the Mien population in treatment, but also in general, is that there isn't a lot of education and material out there. For Mien people, we came in the late-1970’s and we're just starting to enter into secondary education, post-secondary education, and getting all kinds of degrees entering into professional realms. And we're still kind of holding the burden of competence to educate other professionals, our friends or colleagues about “what is Mien?”

What’s happening within our Mien community that's not being spoken and not being reported is sexual trauma, domestic violence, addiction to gambling, and alcoholism. There's so much that isn't being talked about in these people's cases. I worked at the BAART clinic for four years working with monolingual and refugee elders and I learned so much about their history.

We're not comfortable but even when you go see a helping professional, you also still don't talk about it to them. So there's some barriers there with treatment.

Like what would be your solution to an ideal and functional mental health system?

One thing that I found that was super amazing working at a tribal health clinic with the Karuk people or the Karuk tribe is that they have all this funding for mental health service, dental service, medical service- just for their tribes. They have a whole clinic just dedicated to serve just them. It’s community based and tribal base. When they pull in funding for this, they do community centered research and data analysis to kind of pull in what's missing, what's lacking, and what's needed. And then they provided it. It’s not like a cookie cutter model. They really ask like what are you really needing? Like you're needing a sidewalk, let's put in a sidewalk or a community pool. You’re needing funding to create this sacred space for sweat lodges, let’s fund that! It’s just so specific and customized. And I think that's what we're missing. I really would love one day to like run a Mien mental health clinic where professionals and people actually train and learn about the Mien culture. They don't have to be Mien to work there but they have to know about Mien peoples’ history and our community, our food or customs or struggles.

"I really would love one day to run a Mien mental health clinic where professionals and people actually train and learn about the Mien culture."

I mean, even economically speaking. Like I know a lot of Mien people who have gone into agriculture and growing strawberries. Why not create a grant or funding or start an economic program where you can give low interest loans to refugees trying to have a farm. That's really identifying the deficit and meeting the need instead of just saying “Okay, well, services are here. Go access them.”

What resources or role models/ representation did you wish you had growing up?

I would say I wish I had Southeast asian female clinical supervisors. At these Asian community-based mental health agencies that I worked at, it was the first time in my life that I felt super seen and validated because the clinical therapists were Asian or of Asian background. They went through what I went through in graduate school. I wish I had met these people earlier on in life. I didn't meet them until the end of my training and schooling. I was blessed with these female clinical supervisors that really showed me what it was like. They modeled didn’t just model for me the expectation of professionalism, but also how I could get through things. I told myself that one day I'm going to be where they are and guess what I am, I'm a clinical supervisor now. So I wish I would have had those types of people in my life earlier. Just a strong female. I'm not gonna say that my mother and my aunts weren't strong but they weren't in positions that I was hoping to be in. When I was going through my program, everything was just uncharted territory for me.

"As a Mien female, my parents did not want me to go to graduate school."

I had to work through a lot of my own stuff in my clinical training. I was psychoanalyzed and went through my own therapy for three years and then I had to work a lot on my resentment with my family. As a Mien female, my parents did not want me to go to graduate school. They thought I could be working at the bank instead, getting paid a lot more being a bank teller, and make it a career because it was a good paying stable job where I had benefits. They questioned why I would go get this degree so I had to work so much on my resentment because if I did not have the willfulness to defy their wishes and be rebellious and find my own path, I would've just given up. I would have been like, you're right. Let me just settle for this job and work my way up in the bank industry.

What would you say to young girls, women and LGBTQ+ individuals such as yourself that you wish you heard growing up?

I guess my motto is that no one knows what they're doing anyway so go for it. In the moments when I truly doubted myself and had existential crisis, I would question myself: Should I really do this? Is this for me? Did I make all the wrong decisions? But I always came back to “no one really knows what they're doing anyway.”

"If you can't find someone who's going to help you, you're going to forge your own way. Whether that's through sheer determination, whether that's through willfulness and being stubborn, whatever it is, forge your own way."

That is my advice to young people. We're striving always for external validation because of our background and because of our kind of sense of loss identity and do we belong? Are we good enough? You are enough. I want to say you are enough and I want to praise you for being and existing. And that is enough.


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