DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — “In Korea, parents sacrifice their lives for their children, and that’s what my parents did for me. I always wanted to find a way to pay them back, and figured, why not study about aging so that I can serve even more people?”
So says Soyeon Cho, assistant professor of human services at New York City College of Technology (City Tech) in discussing her research on physical and mental health disparities in the Korean-American populations in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and New Jersey (especially Fort Lee and Palisades Park).
Cho’s current research builds on a two-year study by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Mental Health Literacy Among Korean Americans, for which she was project manager. The study, which surveyed approximately 350 Korean-American adults living in Florida, revealed disparities between older Korean-Americans and the general population in their attitudes and knowledge about mental health issues.
Completed last year, the NIMH study found that older Korean-Americans residing in areas of Florida with relatively small Korean communities (where Korean-Americans make up less than 1 percent of the total population) do not have sufficient information about depression, for example. They often are unable to access the services of doctors, clinics, therapists and social workers because of the language barrier.
The study also identified appropriate interventions to improve mental health literacy among Korean-Americans, such as educational workshops for social workers and mental health professionals.
Building on those findings, Cho, a Fort Lee resident who was born and raised in Seoul, decided to study large Korean-American populations in and around New York City and expand the research focus. “The NIMH study was conducted in Florida, where there are not many Korean-speaking doctors or social workers,” she explains. “The New York City metropolitan area has more Korean-Americans and more Korean-speaking health care providers, and I will be looking at both physical and mental health disparities.”
The Diversity Projects Development Fund of The City University of New York (CUNY) is supporting her current study, which will be completed in August 2012. The project examines the Korean-American population’s knowledge about dementia and their attitudes toward it.
As principal investigator, Cho will recruit study subjects through churches, senior citizens’ centers and directories of Korean-Americans, and survey adults age 65 and over. She will publish her findings next fall in peer-reviewed journals and give presentations and workshops for the general population.
Cho, who has been teaching at City Tech since 2008, also is principal investigator for Physical and Mental Health Disparities Among Korean American Older Adults, a research project funded by the Professional Staff Congress (PSC-CUNY). In addition to publishing her findings, she will lecture at senior centers to share her results with the Korean-American community.
“I became interested in aging when I was about to graduate from Ewha Women’s University in Seoul,” says Cho, whose academic background in developmental psychology, which focused on children with disabilities and developmental disorders, first led her to work with older adults with mental disabilities. By the time Cho moved to the U.S. for her doctoral work at Pennsylvania State University, the focus of her work was on caregivers of dementia patients.
Her passionate interest in gerontology issues evolved from her family experience. “My maternal grandfather in Seoul had dementia, and that made me think more on what it means to age well,” she says.
Looking forward to delving even further into her topic, Cho explains, “I am planning new research projects, one of which involves mentally and physically healthy living for immigrants through prevention programs. They need information on how to avoid diabetes, high blood pressure and other chronic illnesses.”
Eventually, she will expand her research to other Asian populations by recruiting Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Filipinos and others as subjects.