Posted: March 9th, 2022

Health Beliefs and Practices among the Hmong

Hmong Culture Health


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Hmong Health Culture


The Hmong people are a group of Asian-Americans who have been living in the United States since an immigration program was started in 1975. Because of their strong animistic faith and beliefs in the supernatural, they have been slow to adapt to the healthcare practices of the United States. The Hmong continue to rely on alternative medicine and faith healers to cure illnesses.


Health Beliefs and Practices among the Hmong


The health practices and beliefs of the Hmong people are traditional for the most part. The Hmong are a spiritual people and this philosophy permeates their concepts of health and illness (Cha, 2010). Like all other matters of an individual’s existence, the health of a person is also linked to the community. The clan elder is consulted in the case of a serious illness. The help of an herbal therapist massage therapist or acupuncture therapist may be sought. In more serious cases, the services of faith healers are sought to rid the body of evil spirits causing the illness.


The Hmong are sensitive about the sanctity and authority of their community or clan (Her, 2010) and do not give much weight to the opinions of people outside their clan. This includes practitioners of western medicine. The Hmong are averse to discussing their health problems with a physician and taking drugs as prescribed by the doctor. They are also less likely to visit a hospital or undertake surgical treatment. Their fatalistic philosophies also discourage them from taking immunizations or seeking treatment for chronic illnesses (Cha, 2003).


Traditional Diet of the Hmong


The traditional Hmong diet is extremely simple and plain compared with the American diet of the country they have migrated to. The Hmong have traditionally been mountain dwelling people in the region of Southern China, Laos and Thailand where rice is grown. Therefore, rice is the staple of their daily diet. The Hmong have three meals a day, which forms the basis of their dietary regimen. Hmong food is neither spicy nor fried. Salt is rarely added to the food while cooking but is served at the dining table in a separate bowl to be added as seasoning as required by the family members at the table (Meester et al. 2010).


Fish and vegetables make an important part of the diet and usually accompany the rice. The fish and vegetables are also cooked very plainly and are eaten boiled with minimal use of spices. However, chilies may be served with the meal so that people may add it according to their taste. The Hmong also incorporate soup in their diet which may be made more luxurious by the addition of pieces of burnt fat (Lee & Tapp, 2010).


The Hmong are not particular about having something sweet after a meal but the sugarcane grown on farmland may be used as a source of sugar in the diet. Traditional snacks include corn on the cob and fruits that grow plenty in the mountainous region and in the plains. Baked sweet potato is also eaten by the Hmong as an afternoon snack (Lee & Tapp, 2010).


Origins and Brief History of the Hmong People


The Hmong people are native to areas including the mountainous regions in Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos but are believed to have originated in southern China (Hillmer, 2009). They have never had a separate national homeland throughout the course of their history. They have been called by various names including Meo and Miao. They have lived in the mountainous regions where they have built a civilization based on farming and hunting. They have lived in large clans. Knowledge has been guided through a belief in animistic and supernatural forces.


There was no Hmong written language until the 1950s, which has made it difficult for much of Hmong history to survive beyond a few generations. Moreover, the Hmong history is based on memories rather than written documents. Because of this factor, there is little uniformity in the historical accounts of the various clans of the Hmong community. The Hmong did not make an impact on the international scene until the start off the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Being against Communist rule in China as well, the Hmong cooperated with the American forces in fighting the communist forces in Vietnam (Hamilton-Merritt, 1993).


Because of the strategic location of their communities at the junction of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, they were recruited and trained by the United States during the Vietnam War to prevent any communication and cooperation between the Vietnamese and the Laotians. After the and withdrawal of American forces, the Hmong people had to face repercussions in Laos.


Migration to the United States


After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the Hmong people were persecuted for collaborating with the Americans in their local communities. The United States then announced an immigration program for the displaced Hmong people. After the announcement, it was estimated that there were around 250,000 Hmong people present in the region and would be relocated to the United Sates. The Hmong then started living in refugee camps in various countries such as Laos and Thailand. In the first stage of the immigration process, around 1000 Hmong were relocated to the United States.


Because of their isolated and reclusive way of life, the United States government wanted to take measures to acculturate them into American society. For this reason, the various immigrant Hmong were dispersed across the rural and urban parts of the country so that they could not live with their clans as was their tradition. Families were also separated as the United States would initially only allow a maximum of eight family members to immigrate with one individual. In the United States, there are around 250,000 Hmong people (Miller & Rasco, 2011). The Hmong population is spread in California, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and North Carolina. Smaller populations are scattered in other western states.


Impact of Cultural Beliefs on Healthcare Treatment


Expressing emotion is a sign of weakness in the Hmong culture. People do not share their feelings with others outside the family or the clan. In particular, mental illnesses are a taboo to be disclosed or discussed with members outside the family. The people do not believe in any biological cause of the disease but in a spiritual interpretation. According to the Hmong culture, the deterioration of health is caused by spiritual or supernatural influences on the body. The body falls ill when an evil force tries to separate the soul from the body. Because of these deep-rooted beliefs, the Hmong have traditionally been resistant to western healthcare practices. The western norm of medical counseling is alien to the Hmong culture and they perceive it to be a challenge to their traditional beliefs. They are more likely to seek help from the community faith healers than professional medical help (Tatman, 2004).


An important cultural factor in healthcare among the Hmong is gender. Typically, Hmong prefer a male physician to treat a male patient and similarly for females. Communication barriers between the sexes are high in Hmong culture. The role of the clan elder is very important in Hmong culture. The elder is the highest authority in the community and no measure can be taken without his approval. Healthcare professionals including physicians are often advised to involve the clan elder in the counseling process to gain maximum compliance from the patient and his or her family (Tatman, 2004).


The Role of Spiritual Rituals in Healthcare among the Hmong


The Hmong are a spiritual people and they believe in animism. They ascribe spiritual powers to natural objects such as trees and mountains (Livo & Cha, 1991). Therefore, they also believe that illness or death is caused by spiritual forces rather than physical or biological causes. When a person in the community falls ill, the Hmong people practice a number of spiritual rituals to drive away or appease the evil spirits. Even in the presence of modern medical processes, the Hmong prefer to practice their family rituals to treat an illness. The Hmong are also active practitioners of alternative medicine and regularly use massage therapy, acupuncture and herbal medicines to treat various illnesses. For illnesses that cannot be treated by these methods, various spiritual methods are used, of which the most popular is the shaman therapy (Tatman, 2004).


According to Hmong belief, the body contains a number of souls instead of just one. The well-being of the body is dependent on the souls living within the body in harmony. When that harmony is disturbed the body becomes unwell. In addition, various evil spirits may attack the body. The shaman is a faith healer who acts as a mediator between the human and the spirit world when an unexplained illness besets a person. The shaman healer may perform elaborate ceremonies to communicate with the spirits and invoke their aid in treating the sick person. At times, the shaman may even perform exorcisms when the patient’s life may be threatened for unexplained reasons (Tatman, 2004).




The Hmong people are rooted in their collectivist way of life. They revere the spirits of their ancestors and the objects in their natural world. They prefer seeking help from alternative therapies and faith healers instead of medical professionals. In order to increase their confidence in modern methods of healing, the clan elders can be involved in the process as a communication bridge.




Cha, D. (2003). Hmong American Concepts of Health, Healing and Conventional Medicine. Routledge.


Cha, Y.P. (2010). An Introduction to Hmong Culture. McFarland.


Hamilton-Merritt, J. (1993). Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992. Indiana University Press.


Her, V.K. (2012). Hmong and American: From Refugees to Citizens. Minnesota Historical Society Press.


Hillmer, P. (2009). A People’s History of the Hmong. Minnesota Historical Society Press.


Lee, G.Y., and Tapp, N. (2010). Culture and Customs of the Hmong. ABC-CLIO.


Meester, F.D., Zibadi, S., and Watson, R.R. (2010). Modern Dietary Fat Intakes in Disease Promotion. Springer Press.


Miller, K.E., and Rasco, L.M. (2011). The Mental Health of Refugees. Taylor & Francis.


Tatman, A.W. (2004). Hmong History, Culture and Acculturation: Implications for Counseling the Hmong. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, Vol. 32 (4). p. 222.

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