One Mind: Two Homes - Handel Behavioral Health
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One Mind: Two Homes

A Tibetan American's Perspectives on Mental Health

July 27, 2023

An immigrant Tibetan American girl sits at her desk in a USA classroom. She is in the shadow of colorful Thangka Tibetan clouds that sit above her.

Amy Mauro

“Every immigrant’s story has a similar theme: you leave your homeland in the pursuit of a better life, and to provide for your family back-home.”

Mental health challenges exist within all cultures, yet the respective meaning of and treatment for mental health challenges can vary significantly from one culture to the next. 

“Mental health is a Western concept,” says Tenzin, an Indian-born Tibetan, who immigrated to the United States when she was 10 years old. 

She adds that discussions of mental health are taboo in many immigrant communities and minority groups. 

Tenzin works for a New-York based nonprofit organization that assists NYC immigrants from Tibetan, Himalayan, and Southeast Asian communities. 

“Tibetan people don’t speak openly about our feelings,” says Tenzin. “We’re very private about our personal lives and we’re taught to internalize our feelings.”

And yet despite the unique stressors that immigrants often face, Tenzin says they are less concerned about their mental health and less likely to seek help from a therapist. Financial stressors, privacy concerns, and societal stigma surrounding mental illness often get in the way.

“Most people who immigrate to America are focused on providing for their family, both here in the US and back home. They’re likely to work multiple jobs, live in intergenerational homes, and try to put food on the table. Taking care of their mental health, with outside support, is not a priority for them,” says Tenzin. 

After living in the US for over a decade, Tenzin has expanded her perception and approach to taking care of her own mental health. She continues to embrace Tibetan values, practices, and traditions, but she’s no longer afraid to share her feelings and ask for help when she needs it.

Tenzin encourages us to raise awareness in the immigrant community about the importance of mental health, and de-stigmatizing outside help. She also helps us consider mental health from a wider perspective: one that encompasses values, beliefs, customs, traditions, and practices shared by a group of people other than our own. 

At HBH, we encourage mental health education, discussion, and support for people of all backgrounds. 

We share Tenzin’s story and insights to raise awareness in the immigrant community about the importance of mental health. We also encourage our readers to look at mental health from a wider lens: one that encompasses values, beliefs, customs, traditions, and practices shared by a group of people other than our own.

The following is Tenzin's story:

My mom immigrated to the US from India, when I was four years old.

Every immigrant’s story has a similar theme: you leave your homeland in the pursuit of a better life, and to provide for your family back home. 

My mom is Tibetan, and she was born in Bhutan. She remembers walking through valleys and up high mountains with her cousins just to get to grade school. She fled Bhutan for a better life in India, with her family. They were assigned to live in a Tibetan Settlement in Southern India, called camp 9; that’s where I was born.   

Everyone who lives in camp 9 is a Bhutanese-born Tibetan, and outsiders aren’t allowed in without authorization from the Indian government. We were able to preserve our Tibetan culture, but it was very removed from the rest of the world. 

Everyone dreamt of leaving Camp 9 for a better life in America. 

My mom wanted to give me a good education. Every paycheck she earned in the US went to pay for my boarding school in India. 

Tenzin doesn’t remember the full story of when she arrived in the US, and reunited with her mom.

It was hard. There weren’t as many Tibetans living in New York as there are now. And Tibetan immigrants didn’t have the support services to aid them with their resettlement process, petition for their family members, and apply for visa applications. My mom had to fight her way to get me here. 

Tenzin struggled with an identity crisis, familiar to many immigrant and refugee adolescents. 

You live in your bubble of cultural norms, values, traditions, and beliefs, and then you come to the US where you’re exposed to so many different types of people. It’s hard to stay grounded in yourself. 

Tenzin says it was confusing for her to hear students talk openly about their thoughts and feelings in her American school. 

Tibetan’s are not very expressive as a culture, we find it difficult to talk about our feelings. When you’re not used to talking openly about your emotions, how can you just start to open up? 

She struggled, initially, to relate to her peers and felt angry with her community for not giving importance to mental and emotional health. 

In addition to cultural reasons for not expressing their feelings, or seeking outside help, there are religious reasons at play.  

Rather than seeking an external solution for their challenges- therapy, counseling, support groups, hotlines, and medication- Tenzin says that Tibetan’s rely heavily on religious practices like prayer to alleviate suffering. 

Tibetan elders look at mental health problems as something that can be healed through prayer. When you’re struggling with anxiety and depression, and you’re told to pray it away, it leaves you feeling really shut down. 

It wasn’t easy for me to break the cultural barrier and seek help from a therapist. I was going to college in New England and away from my mom for the first time since moving to America. I felt embarrassed and awkward to speak about my depression and anxiety, and the shame I experienced growing up. When I began to open up, I started to understand that mental health problems aren’t a sign of personal weakness. I felt so much more confident in myself for breaking societal stigmas and stepping into my own identity. 

Now, in her work with both youth and adult refugees, Tenzin encourages positive promotion of mental health discussion and support. She says that stigma and misperception still exist in the community, but the younger generation of Tibetans is changing that. 

Tibetan youth are definitely more aware of the importance of mental health. They’re talking about their feelings in school, and they’re not afraid to share them with their families at home. 

There are resources in America for people to get the help they need. There are also plenty of people getting outside support and they’re not “sick” or any “lesser.”

Nonetheless, Tenzin says there’s still a need to create awareness and education around mental health within the Tibetan community to reduce stigma and encourage people to get the support and treatment they need. 

Tenzin’s insights help us understand how a person’s mental health, and the culture they identify with, is remarkably intertwined. Religion, social norms, traditions, and socio-economic background can all impact how a person takes care of their mind and body.  

At HBH, we encourage mental health education, discussion, and support for people of all backgrounds. Our trained therapists and counselors provide culturally-competent resources and support to help individuals understand and improve their life challenges. 

We offer online counseling services across the state of Massachusetts. We also offer in-person counseling from our offices in Amherst, Franklin, West Springfield, and Wilbraham

To schedule an appointment with one of our qualified and experienced counselors, contact us today at (413) 343-4357.

About The Author

Nettie Hoagland Headshot

Nettie Hoagland is a writer with experience in local news reporting, nonprofit communications, and community development. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in Media Studies, Journalism, and Digital Arts from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. Nettie believes in the healing power of the arts to create connection and community. She is passionate about using writing as an instrument for personal and social growth in the field of mental health. She is currently based in Brooklyn, NY.