Warner Helps Establish Counseling Profession in Bhutan
Intrigued by the culture, values, and cultural commitment to happiness, Warner School of Education Professors Mary Rapp and Howard Kirschenbaum embarked on a journey last fall to a country that, until recently, has isolated itself from the rest of the fast-paced modern world.
Bhutan is a small, landlocked Himalayan country in South Asia that for the past century has tried to preserve its traditional culture and heritage. Today, conditions in Bhutan are very different from what they were prior to the early 1960’s. There were no public hospitals, schools, paper currency, roads or electricity, and no diplomatic relations until several years after that.
“It was one of the least developed countries in the world,” explains Rapp, who directs the K-12 school leadership preparation program at Warner.
The leaders of Bhutan, who hope to preserve their Buddhist values as the country modernizes and becomes a part of the global community, are very concerned about the wellness of their citizens and have determined that the profession of counseling should be established in maximizing people’s happiness. Bhutanese leaders are now eager to learn more about counseling and apply it to a rapidly modernizing Asian culture committed to gross national happiness.
“When the country opened its borders, the Bhutanese were very particular and careful in the decisions they made about whom to welcome into their country,” adds Rapp, “because they are so committed to maintaining their traditional culture. Volunteers can only enter if their work matches the country’s mission and Buddhist values.”
Rapp and Kirschenbaum, who are married, were part of the Bhutan Counseling Institute, a select team of 12 counselors and counselor educators invited by the Government of Bhutan to assist them in developing a counseling profession. The Institute, hosted by the National Board of Certified Counselors and Old Dominion University, provided counseling services to Bhutan schools, hospitals, social agencies, and universities for a three-week period last October. Rapp and Kirschenbaum, along with two other professionals, focused their time and energy on shaping the counseling profession in K-12 schools.
When Rapp and Kirschenbaum arrived in Bhutan they found that the people welcomed them into their lives completely.
“When I visited the primary school for the first time and the principal introduced me to the 855 children, she said ‘I want you to welcome Professor Mary into the family of our school and I ask that you pray for her and all the work she will do with us and pray for her family, too,’” says Rapp, who spent the bulk of her time at Jigme losel Primary School. “It was a very personal feeling of warmth that we received from the people, as well as the opportunity to feel like we could share some of the things that we had learned over the course of our careers.”
Upon arrival, both Rapp and Kirschenbaum also witnessed how much the counseling field was just beginning. According to Kirschenbaum, there were only two dozen counselors that had significant training and two psychiatrists in the entire country, and there were no social workers or clinical psychologists.
“The field of mental health counseling is just beginning so they were open to everything we had to offer, whether it was information about human growth and development, particular counseling skills, or integrating counseling programs into the schools,” says Kirschenbaum, professor emeritus who chaired Warner’s counseling and human development programs for six years. “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. It was not that they were without resources for helping people with mental health issues, but they did not have a profession of mental health as we would think of it in the west.”
As the country began to modernize, people felt that their traditional means of helping residents and the traditional family supports that were in place were no longer sufficient.
leaders of Bhutan sought out a profession that could help citizens both psychologically and emotionally. After much searching and looking at different options—like psychiatry, clinical psychology, and clinical social work—they chose mental health counseling because it embodies values that focus on prevention and wellness that are consistent with the country’s value of gross national happiness.
“Bhutan like other countries has issues with mental health,” Kirschenbaum explains. “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.”
During the first two weeks of the three-week institute, most participants provided direct counseling services to the citizens of Bhutan in the capital city of Thimphu. Participants were assigned to a school or college, hospital, or social agency, depending on the expertise and interests of the participants.
Most of Rapp’s time was spent at Jigme losel Primary School, a school that has been well-known for its ability to embody Buddhist values. Children here attend school five-and-a-half days a week, which includes Saturday mornings, and the class size averages 45 students.
Rapp, the former assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at the Penfield Central School District, focused on two issues. One was to support the introduction of counselors into the school. The second was to help teachers understand social and emotional health and how it might help children in their school learning.
She adapted teachers’ lessons to utilize the content for decision making and problem solving—specific outcomes identified by the Ministry of Education. During the lessons, Rapp also engaged the children in active learning strategies that were new to the school. Soon, she was responding to numerous requests to demonstrate those techniques throughout the grades.
Rapp reflects back to a hand washing lesson she taught. While creating and learning about graphs, fifth-graders were able to conclude that those who washed their hands the most missed the least amount of school. The lesson was a part of a UNESCO project entitled, “Hand Washing—A Daily Ritual,” which culminated in a skit in which the students acted out the germs, healthy children, and sick children.
Rapp also demonstrated ways that counselors can be helpful. For example, at a forum for parents, she had the opportunity to raise a question about disciplining children that the school principal and a visiting lama used to address current parenting practices.
She says, “That’s the kind of role that a counselor plays in the school—involvement with parents, helping them to develop more effective ways of interacting with their children. They had not previously had the help of a counselor to work with parents in this way, so I was able to model that a bit.”
Across town at Yangchenphu Upper Secondary School, Kirschenbaum worked with teacher counselors and the school principal to develop a counseling program. He created a schedule that allowed time for group counseling and individual counseling for the teacher counselors to work in career development to implement a peer counseling program. Additionally, he worked with the school administration to build an infrastructure for counseling—including a peer helper program, afterschool counselors, release time for teacher-counselors, and private space for counseling—and held workshops to introduce students and teachers to the concept of counseling. For example, he covered what type of issues one can go to a school counselor with and how the counseling process works.
The workshops, according to Kirschenbaum, helped students to see that going to a school counselor does not have a stigma attached to it.
At the end of a student workshop, he says, one student wrote and read aloud, ‘This session on school counseling has helped us to understand how we, the students, can overcome the problems that we face. We all have issues, so thank you for making us feel that we are not alone and that there is help and support available. Now we understand the role that counselors play in life.’
Kirschenbaum adds, “It was gratifying to work that closely with young people in Bhutan. By the time I had left the school after two weeks, I felt that things had really begun to change in terms of the school now wanting to implement some of the goals that they themselves had, but didn’t quite know how to put into practice.”
The trip to Bhutan has had a tremendous impact on the Warner School professors, both personally and professionally.
In addition to the work of counseling education, Kirschenbaum has a lifelong interest in values education, which is now being played out on a national scale in Bhutan. For several decades, he has been writing and teaching about an approach called “comprehensive values education,” whereby adults in society—whether formally in schools or informally in parenting or youth groups—try to help young people develop values that are consistent with the best values of the culture, family, and religion while at the same time learn the life skills to make their own decisions and develop their own values.
“In Bhutan, they are experimenting with a program by 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,” he says. “Bhutan was a fascinating laboratory in which they are trying to balance traditional values education with progressive values education. I would like to return to continue studying and working with the Bhutanese in trying to resolve the longstanding conflict in the field of values education of how to both provide traditional values education and help young people develop their own identities.”
The trip, says Rapp, gave her first-hand experience in working closely with people from another culture, and understanding how important it is to welcome people from other cultures into our schools. “It helped me to understand their values and previous experiences and feel part of a multicultural community,” she adds.
For Rapp and Kirschenbaum, the way this trip has changed them is not over. Both hope to return in a year to build on and continue their work in building the counseling profession.
“We felt so privileged to be included in the life of the school, families and their celebrations,” concludes Kirschenbaum with a smile. “It was an incredibly gratifying personal and professional experience."
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