Vega’s Career Honored, Including Landmark Finding on Mental Illness Among Immigrants

January 16, 2014
by Vincent Lim
William Vega

Since 1972, the American Public Health Association (APHA) has honored many eminent scientists who have made significant contributions to the understanding of the epidemiology and control of mental disorders with its Rema Lapouse Award. This year’s recipient is William Vega, provost professor and executive director of the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging at the USC School of Social Work.

“There is a long list of notable scholars in mental health and epidemiology research who have received the award, so I feel very proud to be honored by the American Public Health Association,” Vega said. “It gives me a very special sense of satisfaction that my work has been appreciated and considered a significant contribution to the field.”

Vega was presented the award at APHA’s 141st Annual Meeting in Boston. Established by Dr. Milton Torres in honor of his wife, Rema Lapouse, the award is given each year by the Mental Health, Epidemiology and Statistics Sections of APHA—one of the oldest, largest and most diverse organizations of public health professionals in the world.

“William Vega was the unanimous choice of the selection committee based on the depth and range of his contributions to understanding social and cultural disparities in mental health and substance use, particularly for Latino populations,” said Ezra Susser, a professor of epidemiology and psychiatry at Columbia University, who chaired the APHA selection committee that unanimously voted for Vega to be this year’s honoree.

An elected member of the prestigious Institute of Medicine, Vega has presented and participated in countless APHA meetings and conferences over the past 30 years. His presentations have discussed findings from community and clinical research projects on health, mental health and substance abuse in diverse regions of the United States and Latin America.

Throughout his career, Vega has been interested in investigating how individuals’ health status changes over time after arriving in the United States from another country.

Cross-national comparisons were considered a novel idea when Vega started his research career over 30 years ago.

“Almost no one was looking at the mental illness rates comparing the United States with other countries in terms of actual diagnosable mental illness,” Vega said.

In fact, when Vega was a professor at San Diego State University in the 1980s, he conducted the first study to compare psychiatric symptom rates of populations in Mexico with populations in the United States.

“What has happened in the last 15 years is that that we’ve witnessed the incredible rise of the importance of global research,” Vega said. “My research naturally fit into that global framework because I started that work over 30 years ago.”

What he found in his research surprised many at the time. The rates of many psychiatric disorders were lower among Mexican populations than among U.S. populations.

“There was an unspoken assumption that all populations were similar in terms of psychiatric rates,” Vega said.

Vega’s research also found that being an immigrant to the United States is in some ways protective in lessening the risk for mental illnesses, which is a finding that still surprises many today.

“Americans don’t want to accept that people from other countries who come from humble circumstances can actually be healthier,” Vega said. “They’re not genetically superior, but there’s something different culturally that makes them less vulnerable to mental and physical illness; they are not self-selected in this instance but rather reflect the superior mental health and lower substance abuse rates of their country of origin outside the U.S.”

His many contributions to advancing research have been recognized by a number of eminent professional societies and service entities in recent years.

“He has been a leader in the field for a long period of time—his work combines creative design, intellectual rigor, and advocacy for social justice,” Susser said.

Vega received the Society for Prevention Research’s Community, Culture and Prevention Science Award in 2002 and the National Hispanic Science Network on Drug Abuse's National Award of Excellence in Research by a Senior Scientist in 2004.

In 2008, he was elected to the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences.

Earlier this year, Vega was the conference honoree at the Latino Behavioral Health Institute’s 19th annual conference for his distinguished research career and contributions to understanding health status issues and disparities experienced by Latinos.

“To appreciate the importance your work may have in the field is virtually impossible for much of your career in the behavioral sciences; it requires building a body of work,” Vega said. “I was fortunate that I was at the crest of the global research movement.”