Psychosocial distress of Tibetans in exile: integrating western interventions with traditional beliefs and practice

Soc Sci Med. 2005 Jan;60(1):179-89. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2004.04.025.


A psychosocial care project for Tibetan torture survivor's and other Tibetan refugees suffering from psychological distress was opened in Dharamsala, North India in 1995 by a western non-government organisation (NGO) in collaboration with the Tibetan government-in-exile. The clinic explicitly sought to integrate western and local traditional approaches to healing. The aim of the present study was to examine the views of key stakeholders of the project in the context of broader cultural and social issues faced by exiled Tibetans. Twenty individual interviews were conducted with 'officials' (members of the Tibetan government-in-exile, religious leaders, other community leaders, and senior medical staff), the staff of the project (Tibetan and western) and the clients themselves. The interviews were taped, transcribed, and analysed using a grounded theory approach. All interviewees considered that mental health was an important issue and that awareness of psychological health in the community had improved since the initiation of the project. Clients and staff of the project, and some of the 'officials', believed that it provided a much-needed service and that it effectively and sensitively combined western psychological approaches with local cultural and religious beliefs and practices. However, a majority of the 'officials' felt that mental health issues were not a top priority in the competing health needs of the community, and that other ways of dealing with such problems (using traditional approaches or local health services) were adequate. Given these and other factors, the longer-term sustainability of the project appears to be a major challenge. According to the users and providers interviewed, the current project has developed an important and beneficial psychosocial support service. However, the continuing debate amongst community leaders regarding the place and future of the project suggests the importance of accommodating the views and priorities of all local stakeholders--and focusing on sustainability and capacity building of relevant community members--from the outset of such projects. This includes acknowledging the perceived threat to traditional beliefs and coping strategies--particularly in the context of wider socio-cultural disruption--posed by initiatives seeking to integrate western intervention approaches with local healing resources.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Health
  • Bhutan
  • Buddhism
  • Cooperative Behavior*
  • Delivery of Health Care, Integrated
  • Humans
  • India
  • Medicine, Tibetan Traditional*
  • Mental Disorders / psychology
  • Mental Disorders / therapy
  • Mental Health Services*
  • Nepal
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care / psychology
  • Politics*
  • Refugees / psychology*
  • Religion and Medicine
  • Stress, Psychological / complications*
  • Survivors / psychology*
  • Tibet / ethnology
  • Torture / psychology*