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Researchers study ways to relieve stress among Bhutanese refugees in western Massachusetts

 UMass Amherst researcher Kalpana Poudel Tandukar.
John Solem
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
UMass Amherst researcher Kalpana Poudel Tandukar.

A University of Massachusetts Amherst study is seeking ways to improve mental health among Bhutanese refugees in western Massachusetts.

Kalpana Poudel Tandukar first worked with Bhutanese refugees as a medical clinician in Nepal in the 1990s.

“They were just deported from Bhutan and they had lots of trauma and stress from leaving their country,” she said.

Decades later, the UMass Amherst researcher is revisiting the refugees who settled in Springfield, West Springfield and Westfield – and finding the mental health problems have evolved.

Tandukar said the older refugees still struggle with language barriers and isolation, while the generation born in Nepalese camps have their own challenges.

"They have to work as a translator for their parents and they have to work to maintain their family,” Tandukar said, “At the same time they have to study to develop their careers.”

Tandukar’s team has recruited people within the Bhutanese community, with the help of local Bhutanese pastors, to help develop interventions around problem-solving, mind-body work and other mental health needs.

At the end of the study, in 2024, researchers will assess – using interviews and biomarkers – whether those who received the interventions have less stress, anxiety and depression than those who did not.

The participants in the control group, who did not initially get the interventions, will be given the option of receiving them later.

Tandukar said about 116 families are part of the study, out of about 3,500 Bhutanese in Massachusetts.

She said they hope to apply the results to other immigrant and refugee groups.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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