Suicide rate of Bhutanese Americans twice national rate, highest among any refugee population

Bhutanese American Tara Gurung and her husband. Tara's father, Ram Gurung, counseled fellow refugees from committing suicide. However, after moving to the United States with his wife and two adult daughters, Ram Gurung committed suicide last year at the age of 73. (Photo credit: Ryan Lessard, NHPR)
Bhutanese American Tara Gurung and her husband. Tara’s father, Ram Gurung, counseled fellow refugees from committing suicide. However, after moving to the United States with his wife and two adult daughters, Ram Gurung committed suicide last year at the age of 73. (Photo credit: Ryan Lessard, NHPR)

Despite the precepts of the Model Minority Myth, not all Asian American & Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the United States arrived as wealthy, middle-class East Asian entrepreneurs to pursue graduate degrees or to start small businesses. According to statistics published yesterday by the Center for American Progress, one-fifth of AAPI who received permanent resident status in 2012 did so as refugees or asylees; yet this population — many of whom can trace their ethnic heritage to Southeast Asia — struggles for visibility against the backdrop of the larger AAPI community. This invisibility is exacerbated by the absence of disaggregated data for the AAPI community along ethnic lines, which can reveal the unique sociopolitical iniquities that plague Southeast Asian Americans.

According to the United Nations, America is home to approximately 70,000 Bhutanese Americans, representing less than 0.5% of the AAPI population. Bhutanese Americans are ethnically derived from the small land-locked country of Bhutan, a small country in the Himalayas bordered by the two much larger nations of China and India. In the 1980’s, thousands of Bhutanese were forced out of Bhutan during a period of countrywide political turmoil (many expelled Bhutanese were targeted due to their non-Tibetan origins), and were forced to relocate to temporary refugee camps in the neighbouring country of Nepal; some subsequently accepted permanent relocation to the United States as political refugees starting in 2008.

Currently, the Bhutanese American population is concentrated in several states including Texas, Arizona, and New York. In New Hampshire, the state’s population of 2000 Bhutanese Americans represent 65% of the state’s total refugee population.

And shockingly, our country’s small, young, and underserved population of Bhutanese American refugees suffer among the country’s highest rates of PTSD, depression, and suicide — the latter of which is nearly twice that of national suicide rates — indicating a clear failure of America’s existing healthcare and social services programs to adequately address and support Bhutanese Americans.

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