Emory Report
April 14, 2008
Volume 60, Number 27


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April 14, 2008
Study shows depression, anxiety widespread in Tibetan refugees

By Kathi baker

A new study led by Emory researcher Chuck Raison is the first to show that depression and anxiety are more prevalent in Tibetan refugees than they are in ethnic Tibetans born and raised in the comparative stability of exile communities in Northern India and Nepal. The findings were reported in the April 2008, on-line version of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology.

“As political tensions within Tibet continue to erupt, it is estimated that approximately 2,500 Tibetan refugees per year cross the Himalayas into Nepal, seeking asylum there or in India,” says Raison, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

“One-third of these refugees are children and 90 percent of those children are without parents. Not only have these children been victimized in an environment lacking in respect for human rights, but their escape from Tibet to India through the perilous Himalayas is full of risk and trauma.”

The study was conducted in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh at two campuses of Tibetan Children’s Villages, the primary school system for ethnic Tibetans in exile in India and Nepal.

Student volunteers were asked to complete a questionnaire widely used to measure depression and anxiety symptoms in refugee groups around the world.

The students born in Tibet demonstrated significantly higher depression and anxiety scores than their Tibetans peers born in exile in either India or Nepal. Students who left Tibet at an older age or who had been in India for a shorter period of time had higher depression and anxiety scores, suggesting that experiences in Tibet may have promoted depression and anxiety, whereas time spent in India may have promoted an improvement of symptoms.

Other risk factors for depression and anxiety in the group as a whole included being female and having limited family contact; however, these factors did not account for the association between being born in Tibet and having increased anxiety and depression.

“These findings highlight the cost of the ongoing human rights crisis within Tibet in human emotional suffering,” says Raison.

Raison concludes that there is a need for continued support for refugee communities, even after prolonged periods of what seems to be successful adaptation in an exile environment. He suggests that providing increased international resources toward the improvement of emotional functioning for these adolescents and young adults could make a significant difference.

Raison, who is corresponding author, received support for the study from the Emory Tibet Science Initiative. Raison is director of the Behavioral Immunology Clinic, clinical director of the Mind-Body Program and co-director of Emory’s Collaborative for Contemplative Studies.