Towards a Better Understanding of Mental Health Among Exiled Tibetans

"Despite different approaches and methods, mental hygiene is as important as physical health"

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK.

Positive changes in attitudes towards mental health issues have led to greater understanding and awareness in recent years, but steps must be taken to ensure that a broad range of perspectives and experiences are considered when developing mental health policies and support.

To this end, Free Tibet is proud to publish ‘Towards a better understanding of mental health among Exiled Tibetans‘ by Tenzin Dakpa, from The Tibetan Psychological Association. We hope that greater knowledge of mental health across a range of communities will help to improve the understanding of mental health by all and increase the accessibility of mental health services.

The following article is a summary of Tenzin Dakpa’s paper. You can read the full version in the link below.

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Mental Health in the Tibetan Community

Due in part to the relative infancy of psychology as a subject, a tendency by some researchers to view mental health as ‘less important’ than physical health, and cultural biases, information on the effects of Chinese occupation on the Tibetan community has been focused largely on physical abuse and loss of statehood. When Tibetans have spoken to foreign researchers about mental health, linguistic barriers and different cultural attitudes towards the subject may have blurred data gathering results.

However, just because mental health issues in Tibetan communities have been underreported, this is not to say that these issues do not exist. Rather, there is concerning data which shows that incidences of suicide, substance abuse, and mental health disorders are on the rise.

Tenzin Dakpa explains that Tibetans living in exile are subjected to countless environmental factors which can lead to mental health issues, and observes that many Tibetans struggle with PTSD, anxiety, burnout, toxic and emotionally abusive relationships, stress, eating disorders and perfectionism. He suggests that these issues arise as a result of intergenerational trauma.

"Tibet's first-generation in exile [...] have been violently removed from their land, livelihood and lifestyles. In the face of this extreme trauma, this generation found themselves in new countries, and new societies and had to quickly adapt to new ways of being, and rebuild their lives from the ground up."
– Tenzin Dakpa

Psychology in Tibetan Diaspora

Concepts of mental hygiene and psychology, though they may not have been given such names, have a longstanding and important history in Tibetan culture. However, this is not to say that there are no issues or that the systems in place are not without flaws. Tenzin Dakpa observes that people in Tibetan society rarely talk about neurodivergencies such as autism and Down’s syndrome and that some of the psychological terms in the Tibetan language are problematic.

“Based on the Buddhist concept of mind and its understanding, Tibetan mental health approaches the study of the mind from a Buddhist perspective. In particular, it examines the mind and mental health from a purely philosophical and spiritual standpoint” explains Tenzin Dakpa.

This philosophical and spiritual approach to mental health and psychology stands in stark contrast to the Western approach, which centres heavily on psychotherapy and environmental responses.

In efforts to seek an approach to psychology that understands and respects the Tibetan Buddhist perspective, H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama met with scientist Francisco Varela and entrepreneur Adam Engle in 1987. The result of their meeting was the founding of the Mind & Life Institute, and a series of regular dialogues and seminars relating to psychology.


Tibetan society today and the emergence of young psychologists

On 8 April 2022, a group of students including Tenzin Dakpo founded the Tibetan Psychological Association, intending to further understand Tibetan and Buddhist approaches to mental health and psychology.

Since then, the group has organised a conference alongside NGOs and the Central Tibetan Administration, which was attended by students and academics alike. Notably, a number of students, at varying levels of education, are based in the field of psychology.

"Nobody should be denied access to mental health care because of their financial or socioeconomic status. Nobody should be treated differently because of how they were born - beliefs can be different, approaches can be different - but a healthy mind is what we all want."
– Tenzin Dakpa

The Tibetan Psychological Association

“The Tibetan Psychological Association was started with an aim to create a network among young Tibetans who are studying in different fields of psychology, to have a platform where they can organize seminars, workshops, and training in the Tibetan community, and help each other for research and other resources. Additionally, using this platform we can create a bridge between Buddhist and Western psychology.”

You can follow The Tibetan Psychological Association on social media using the links below.

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Many thanks to Tenzin Dakpa for writing this paper. We sincerely hope that it will provide a useful resource to further understanding and acceptance of mental health.

Read the full version

We are Free Tibet, and we stand with Tibetans around the world. For their homeland, for their future and against China’s brutal occupation.