Zhen Cheng (BS11) Presents Mental Health Research at National Conference, Wins Award

Zhen Cheng (BS11) Presents Mental Health Research at National Conference, Wins Award

Zhen Cheng

Zhen Cheng, who graduated from SESP in June, is already making progress in her quest to encourage Asian Americans to utilize mental health services. She is presenting her research on mental health needs at the Asian American Psychological Association (AAPA) conference this month in Washington, D.C.

She also won the Asian American Psychological Association's Student Research Award, which she will receive at the convention. The annual award recognizes one undergraduate and one graduate student who demonstrates outstanding research and/or program development or has created theories or methodological paradigm that will benefit the Asian American community.

“I’ve had one goal in mind with all my research: to empower Asian Americans to overcome various barriers they encounter when seeking and utilizing clinical services,” says Cheng, who will be starting a doctoral program in psychology at the University of Oregon in the fall. “It has been found that Asian Americans underutilize almost all forms of clinical services.”

The study she is presenting at the convention found intra-ethnic differences related to Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) clients’ mental health needs. “One barrier that can be preventing AAPI from seeking help or staying in therapy is the lack of cultural-competent therapy,” explains Cheng, who majored in human development and psychological services.

Overall, her research shattered the myth that AAPI is a homogenous group by giving voice to the unique mental health issues facing each underrepresented AAPI community. For example, she found that Cambodians have high levels of PTSD, which is virtually unreported for Chinese and Koreans. “This research also raises both empirical and clinical questions, such as, how should we research and teach cultural competency? Should cultural competency limited to just race (such as Asian American or African American) or be specific for each intra-ethnic community?” she asks.

Cheng’s research, which she conducted with professor Cheryl Judice from Northwestern University and Celine Woznica from the Asian Health Coalition of Illinois, was selected to be represented at this year’s convention because of the quality of the findings and its match with this year’s convention theme: Expanding Our Horizons: Giving Voice to Underrepresented AAPIs.

The study included data from five different Asian American communities including Cambodians and Vietnamese, which are typically underrepresented in research. “The findings have important implications for both researchers and clinicians,” Cheng notes.

For her senior honors thesis at SESP, Cheng conducted related research on mental health with the topic “The Benefits of Neurobiology over Genetic and Social Essentialism in Lowering Mental Illness Stigma.” This study examined how people's beliefs about the cause of mental illness impact stigma. Results indicated that, compared to both genetic and social explanations, a neurobiological explanation led to lower stigma in terms of people's willingness to associate with, help and hire those with a mental illness. Cheng’s adviser for the project was professor Galen Bodenhausen, and her readers were professors David Uttal and Joan Chiao.

As a doctoral student at Oregon, Cheng will be working with professor Gordon Hall, the current president of AAPA. “I’m excited for this unique opportunity!” she says.

“I definitely know that I want to pursue research that will practically benefit the Asian American community to utilize mental health services more. As for the specifics, I might want to pursue something related to cultural competency or mental health stigma. I am also interested in examining the increasing role of religion and Christianity on Asian Americans, which I believe is so far understudied. In general, I am excited for this new stage in my life, and hope to start my new journey of research and discovery with much faith and gratitude!” she says.

Read more about Zhen Cheng, the subject of Northwestern magazine's "Seniors To Watch" feature.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 9/30/12