Warner School of Education faculty members Mary Rapp and Howard Kirschenbaum traveled to Bhutan last fall to establish a previously nonexistent counseling profession.
Located north of India on the slopes of the Himalayas, the remote country has preserved a rich and unique cultural heritage at the expense of modernization. Having only recently lifted a ban on television and the Internet, Bhutan has, for much of its history, lagged behind the rest of a rapidly developing world.
“The Bhutanese [are] very thoughtful with whom they welcome into their country because they are so committed to maintaining their traditional culture,” Rapp, Director of Warner’s School Leadership Preparation Program, said. “Volunteers can only work there if the project furthers the country’s mission and is consistent with Buddhist values.”
Rapp and Kirschenbaum, Professor Emeritus of Warner’s Counseling and Human Development Department, had a mission of their own. Invited by the Bhutanese government to promote the fledgling counseling profession, the husband and wife team focused on shaping the role of counselors in K-12 schools.
“The field of mental health counseling is just beginning so they were open to everything we had to offer,” Kirschenbaum said. “They were eager to learn as much as they could about how counseling works and how it could be adapted into their own particular culture and values in Bhutan.”
Having spent considerable time observing at the Yangchenphu Upper Secondary School, Kirschenbaum discovered that despite the cultural differences between Bhutan and the west, there were also several similarities.
“Bhutan, like other countries, has issues with mental health,” Kirschenbaum said. “There’s growing alcoholism and substance abuse, domestic violence and stress among school students due to peer pressure and high stakes testing. There’s also depression and anxiety, so Bhutan is no different than other countries, and helping professionals are going to be very useful and critical in Bhutan to help meet those needs.”
With two psychiatrists and not a single clinical psychologist or social worker, both Rapp and Kirschenbaum believe that Bhutan is in urgent need of expanding its professional counseling workforce.
Rapp, who worked extensively with the Jigme Losal Primary School, helped train a new generation of counselors.
“I was able to build upon what teachers were already doing well by taking the curriculum a step further — engaging the children in activities that supported the application of learning to their lives,” she said. “The Bhutanese are interested in modernizing while still maintaining their traditional values, and I was able to model that a bit.”
This juxtaposition of the cultural and the contemporary, the spiritual and the secular, was evident at Yangchenphu School as well.
“They are experimenting with a program [in] which they are trying to instill the traditional Buddhist values, but also have the explicit goal of teaching young people life skills, including decision-making, creativity, self-awareness and other skills that help develop people’s individuality,” Kirschenbaum added.
The couple agrees that the trip was largely successful and a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“My experiences helped me to understand their values and previous experiences and feel part of a multicultural community,” she said.
Having resumed their posts at the Warner School, Rapp and Kirschenbaum eagerly anticipate their return to Bhutan this fall with the goal of expanding the work they have already begun in the schools.
Gould is a member of the class of 2014.