The East/West Conference on Health and Well Being

Sometimes it is possible to make a dream come true. I did just that in March of this year, when the East/West Conference on Health and Well Being was convened in Kathmandu, Nepal. The result of four years of planning, this conference brought together scholars from the east and the west interested in health and well being, broadly defined, to establish a research and policy agenda between them. Over 60 scholars from around the world attended. Participants came from Australia, France, Korea, Israel, India, Japan, Nepal, The Netherlands, South Africa and the U.S. Topics of papers topics ranged from “Meditation: The Interface between Hinduism and Buddhism” to “Psychosocial Correlates of Health Lifestyles in Black and White South Africans.”

Dana Jack, a Fulbright Scholar from the University of Western Washington, gave one of the invited addresses. Her topic was “Silencing the Self: Lessons and Questions from an East-West Comparison.” Jack noted that about 340 million people are affected by depression worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, depression will be the second most serious health threat in the world by 2020.

Based on her preliminary interviews, Jack reported that the two symptoms considered as primary for depression in the West, sad and empty and loss of interest in life, are not primary for depression in Nepal, where somatic issues are associated with poor mental health. It is considered culturally inappropriate for women in Nepal to seek medical treatment for the symptoms typically associated with depression in the west, such as sadness. Further, it is difficult to acknowledge depression in a culture where silencing the self – that is, refraining from speaking one’s feelings in a close relationship when you know disclosure would cause disagreement, and refusing to state one’s feelings clearly when they conflict with one’s partner’s feelings – is so important to maintaining a connected/communal self.

Yutaka Haruki of Waseda University, Japan, was the other invited speaker. In his presentation, “The Concept of Self Regulation from the Perspective of Zen Buddhism,” Haruki used the “ten bulls” pictures drawn by Kuoan, a Zen priest who lived in Liangshan, Dingzhou, China (currently, Hunansheng Chagdexian) in the Zong period (1100s) to illustrate the process of becoming aware of oneself. According to Zen priests, the bull is the true, natural self. A person who becomes aware that the true self has become lost in daily life sets out to look for the lost self. The search, in western terms, involves the integration of the subjective “I” and objective selves and achieving self-regulation. The final goal is to achieve a complete integration of the two selves. A condition where there is no trace of “I” or bias, and the world can be seen as it really is, a construct that Jung might have described as self-realization.

Marta Elliott of the University of Nevada, Reno presented an analysis of culture and distress. Drawing on a sample of 46,454 individuals from 35 countries interviewed in person in 1990- 1993 by the World Values Study Group, she created an index of distress based on 10 items measuring the presence of positive and negative emotional states over the few weeks prior to the interview. The absence of positive states and presence of negative states were weighted equally. Independent measures included work and family status, gender, age, sense of control, relations with parents and spouse, and values such as the importance of family and friends. Multi-level analysis estimated an individual-and country-level model of distress, allowing direct tests of the effect of collectivism on distress and on individual-level predictors of distress.

Levels of distress were higher in collectivist countries than individualistic ones (using the criteria established by Hostede and Triandis). Two factors – belief in individualism and importance of leisure time – had differential effects on distress by culture. The effect of believing there should be greater emphasis on individualism was associated with less distress in individualistic cultures, and greater distress in collectivist ones. Parallel results were obtained for the effect of rating leisure time as more important. Valuing individualism and its attendant liberties produces distress when it clashes with the overarching cultural valuation of collectivism. Apparently, there are real costs associated with defying one’s traditional cultural teaching in favor of western values.

RESEARCH ACTION ROUNDTABLES

To stimulate the kind of interaction that results in cross-cultural collaborative research and publication, conference participants were urged to move beyond the usual “listen and leave” mode of attending a conference. Toward that end, formal presentations, including paper sessions and invited addresses, were interspersed with opportunities to gather in “Research Action Roundtables” to exchange ideas and force collaborations.

The roundtables worked. Several investigators connected to plan research projects which are now ongoing. For example, Chris Rybak a counseling psychologist at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, has teamed up with a group of faculty on the Padma Kanya (PK) campus of Nepal’s Tribhuvan University to continue his investigations of eastern healing and western counseling. Harinder Thapliya, who specializes in family and child development and is a faculty member at Tribhuvan University, will be coming to Auburn University in the fall to speak on, “Female Socialization in the Tradition-Bound Culture of Nepal,” and to explore the feasibility of an interdisciplinary cross cultural research project in family studies.

Pashupati Mahat, a clinical psychologist at the Teaching Hospital in Kathmandu has just established a new training program for practitioners interested in serving the needs of the mentally retarded in Nepal and would welcome the involvement of western experts. Several APS members who attended the conference, including Fellow and Charter Member Faye Crosby, from the University of California – Santa Cruz, are planning to return to Nepal next year. A volume based on the proceedings of the conference is under exploration. Five young girls are now attending school regularly in a village in eastern Nepal close to the Tibet boarder due to the generosity of several conference participants (there is no public education in Nepal). A number of E Bags of psychology textbooks have been sent to the PK campus library.

It is possible to make a difference!

Observer Vol.14, No.9 November, 2001

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