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After Kathmandu

What’s changed for two psychology professors who traveled to Nepal to teach and conduct research? by Monica M. Jones

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Home to eight of the world’s ten tallest mountains, including Mount Everest, Nepal draws adventure-seekers from every corner of the globe. But while the country’s mountainous terrain attracts tourists, it can limit access to resources. In fact, the limited educational resources drew Dr. Sarah Hall, assistant professor of psychology, and Dr. Terri Watson M.A.’86, associate dean of psychology, to Kathmandu, the nation’s capital, for three weeks last summer to train mental health professionals and lay people.

In this ancient, sprawling city, Dr. Watson says, “Significant mental health needs, combined with few resources, result in mental health workers being stretched to the limits of their capacity and competency.”

Partially funded by the Wheaton College Alumni Association as well as a teaching award Dr. Watson received, the trip came about thanks to an alumni connection. Becky Locke Thorson M.A. ’92, M.A. ’94, a former graduate student of Dr. Watson, told her about the need for mental health education in this corner of the world. Becky has worked in Nepal for 30 years with her husband, Dr. Stephen Thorson M.A. ’92.

Preparing for the professors, Becky surveyed mental health professionals in Kathmandu and found that the primary needs were for training in clinical supervision and counseling children and adolescents. Many in the church also expressed a need for training on living in good relationship with others.

Dr. Watson, who was responsible for teaching the course on clinical supervision, says, “It was a privilege to come alongside of these dedicated and highly competent professionals and provide ‘capacity building.’”

Dr. Hall taught a child and adolescent counseling skills course to a group of school counselors, nurses, and other helping professionals. Both professors collaborated with Mandy Kellums M.A. ’13 to teach a course on healthy family living, covering topics such as basic child development, parenting, discipline, caring for children, marriage, and communication.

Teaching this last course in a local church, the team presented psychological knowledge and research within a biblical framework. “It was amazing to see how hungry these people were for the training, education, and materials,” says Dr. Hall, who adds that teaching five days a week for up to eight hours a day, with temperatures soaring at 90 degrees, took some adjustment.

Formerly the world’s only Hindu kingdom, Nepal survived a decade of civil war at the dawn of the 20th century. Following peace agreements and historic Constituent Assembly elections, the country is now a secular democratic republic. Although there have been advances in development and infrastructure, Nepal is still one of the poorest countries in Asia, with nearly one third of the population living below the poverty line. Much of Kathmandu is powered by hydroelectricity, but there isn’t enough power for the entire population, so rolling blackouts can mean many days with only about 14 hours of power. Travel can also be tricky, since cars, buses, motorbikes, people, and animals all travel the same roads together.

In Nepal mental health professionals identify social stigma as one of the greatest barriers to receiving mental health services. “Many individuals and families are fearful of bringing shame and dishonor on their families if they were to acknowledge the presence of emotional, psychological, or relational issues,” says Dr. Watson. “This is not unlike the U.S., where some people feel admitting psychological problems is a sign of failure, inadequacy, or even spiritual failure. We were inspired by the creativity and diligence of the Nepalese mental health professionals to change their society and cultural views of mental health needs and therefore increase access to services.”

Both professors found their Nepalese mental health colleagues open to discussions about religion and the importance of helping clients use effective religious coping methods in dealing with mental health challenges. “We enjoyed numerous lively discussions about the differences between Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity,” says Dr. Watson.

While teaching at the church, the team started every day with worship and a brief sermon. Dr. Hall remembers one church member vividly. This woman and her sons were homeless and living under a bridge in Kathmandu until they connected with a church member and moved into a church- owned apartment.

Dr. Hall recalls seeing the woman dancing in the aisles during worship, helping collect the offering, and taking on a leadership role in the church, even though it was just informally. “Seeing her joy in the Lord is what stood out for me,” Dr. Hall says, adding that the trip helped her think more deeply about how God works and the ways in which culture shapes our lives.

For Dr. Watson, perhaps the richest lesson of the trip highlighted the cultural importance of showing respect for others. In Nepal respect is expressed in both subtle and overt ways. “The experience caused me to carefully examine the ways that I interact with others . . . and to realize the importance of respect as a demonstration of Christ-like love, as it shows others that they are valued and treasured.”

While in Kathmandu, the team also conducted a small research project, surveying the various professionals about mental health needs and challenges in Nepal and about their own personal experiences and struggles with mental health symptoms. Undergraduate and graduate Wheaton students are now working to analyze the data gathered in Nepal, and Dr. Hall hopes to publish the findings for the broader psychological community.

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