Two years ago, when Pahoua Yang’s parents moved out of her childhood home in St. Paul, she found a stack of papers saved from her sixth-grade graduation from Jackson Elementary School in the city’s Frogtown neighborhood.
“On one of them was this statement,” Yang recalled, “When I am 26, I will have my Ph.D. and be a psychologist.” The youthful prognosticator continued: “‘I will help Hmong people have a better life and be happier.’”
Turns out that Yang’s childhood predictions weren’t that far off. As the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation’s director of community mental health, she heads up children’s mental health services and Southeast Asian mental health services for the St. Paul-based foundation, working to create better lives for the city’s immigrant and refugee communities.
While not every piece of Yang’s childhood predictions came true (“I wasn’t 26 when I got my Ph.D.,” she admitted, wryly, “and I have worked with not only Hmong people, but a truly diverse group in very different mental health settings”), the core of her work at Wilder has remained remarkably aligned with the goals she set for herself as she prepared to leave elementary school.
“What continues to hold true is the reason this work continues to be so important to me,” Yang said. “In my job, I get to help people have a better life and be happier every day.”
Focus on mental health equity
Throughout her six-year career with Wilder, Yang has focused on creating equal access to mental health services for the communities she serves.
“I look at every decision I make through a health-equity lens,” Yang said. “At Wilder we are constantly looking for ways to improve access to mental health and other vital services. I see my role as amplifying the voices of the people we serve, and working to improve systems to benefit of the entire community.”
In her new role, Yang oversees all Wilder community mental health services, including children’s mental health and Southeast Asian mental health services. In her career, she has served on a number of national and statewide committees and task forces aimed at advancing health equity. A graduate of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration-Health Resources Services Administration (SAMHSA-HRSA) joint initiative on Addressing Health Disparities Leadership Program, Yang has served on the Minnesota Department of Human Service’s Cultural and Ethnic Communities Leadership Council.
Bobbi Cordano, vice president of Wilder Programs, said that Yang’s extensive professional background makes her the perfect match for the position. “Dr. Yang’s leadership will be vital in advancing Wilder’s vision for greater access to community mental health and health equity,” Cordano said.
Accolades aside, Yang said she is excited about the opportunities the job provides.
“This position allows me to advocate at an expanded level for the people we serve at the Wilder Foundation, the community and for mental health providers, who are so committed to doing this work,” she said. “I look forward to working with my colleagues at Wilder and with our many partners in the community to improve the way we respond to the needs of families. I am very excited about the work we’re doing with culturally specific mental health services as a way to help families heal together.”
Recognized for advocacy
In November, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota recognized Yang’s achievements by naming her the organization’s Professional of the Year.
In her award speech, Sue Abderholden, NAMI Minnesota executive director, stressed Yang’s history of compassionate activism.
“Dr. Yang has … been a strong advocate for addressing the inequities in our mental health system and for improving access to culturally competent mental health care,” Abderholden said. “It’s not enough for Dr. Yang to provide good mental health treatment, she works to ensure that all people have access to high-quality treatment.”
Over the years, Abderholden has enjoyed working with Yang on a number of projects.
“Pahoua is collaborative and knowledgeable,” Abderholden said. “She has done a great job not just for the Southeast Asian community, but also for the Karen and others. She is now bringing her expertise and perspective to the public-policy arena, which I greatly appreciate.”
Yang said that she feels fortunate to have grown up in a state that in most cases holds true to its commitment to providing high quality health care for all of its residents. While touts the state’s “commitment to diversity, to removing barriers to mental health services for many different populations and to engaging with communities regarding the different needs around the state,” Yang is not afraid to hold lawmakers accountable for their public commitments — especially those in the area of mental health.
While playing the advocate role, Yang says she never forgets her ambitious sixth-grade self, the pre-teen daughter of Hmong refugees who felt confident that she had the power to one day make a difference in the world. While Yang believes that her work today helps others live happier lives, she’s also come to the realization that part of her job is to help the people she serves discover their inner sixth-grader, the confident kid excited to change the world for the better.
“Now that I’m no longer 12 and have actually been a therapist, I know that I’m only a small part in someone’s recovery,” Yang said, “but I feel honored that so many people have let me into their lives and have allowed me to be a part of their or their child’s healing. What inspires me to do my work in the Southeast Asian communities is what has inspired me overall to go into the field of mental health: my belief in the potential of people.”