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SUNY Plattsburgh's Dr. Richard Schnell: Stories from Bhutan (Changing for Happiness)

Dr. Richard Schnell believes in utopias. He always has, and he thinks he may have found one — at least temporarily.

“Often, they don’t last,” Schnell said. “But a government that measures its worth in gross national happiness rather than gross national product will capture my mind and my heart every time.”

The government Schnell speaks of is in the tiny country of Bhutan, which Schnell has visited three times.

Journey to the Land of the Thunder Dragon

Prior to 2011, Schnell, a mental health counselor and retired SUNY distinguished service professor, had never worked with clients outside the United States. So when he and his wife, Dr. Zoanne Schnell, a professor emerita of nursing, were approached to participate in an outreach mission to modernize Bhutan’s mental health counseling services, the couple was interested.

As part of a U.S. delegation to the country’s ministry of health during that first trip, Schnell educated himself on Bhutan. The country’s nickname, according to legend, stems from a Buddhist monk who mistook thunder for the roar of a dragon while searching for land to place his monastery. He named the monastery Druk, which translates to “thunder dragon.”

Schnell immersed himself in Bhutanese culture and learned about the nine domains of gross national happiness: psychological well-being, health, time use, education, cultural diversity, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and living standard.

He found that these domains — intermixed with Bhutan’s culture — had a profound effect on overall lifestyle.

Counseling with Company

After 40 years of private counseling in the United States, Schnell was surprised by the public approach in Bhutan. Meetings with clients there were open to the community, and the whole community came, filling them with background chatter, ringing cell phones and sometimes entire families.

“Everyone was there to help solve the problem,” he said.

Bhutan’s largely Buddhist culture, with its emphasis on acceptance, lays a framework for support, Schnell said. Compared to the United States, patients in Bhutan are more willing to seek help and communicate openly about mental health and addiction.

“There’s not the same kind of stigma,” Schnell said.

Traditions All Around

According to Schnell, Bhutan’s ancient practices, architecture and clothing have been preserved, in part, because the country remained quite isolated until recently.

There was no tourism in the country until 1974, according to the Tourism Council of Bhutan, and televisions only became mainstream around 1998, Schnell said.

“These are very bright, spiritual people, who have a very long-surviving culture intact,” he said.

Schnell was especially intrigued by local shamans working with trained doctors.

“What I love about that is you have spiritual traditions that coexist side by side with western medicine,” he said. “They’re not conflicted.”

Gift Exchange

During his first visit to Bhutan in 2011, Schnell befriended the country’s chief psychiatrist, Dr. Chencho Dorji. One day, Dorji asked Schnell if he could recommend any books to Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, affectionately known as Queen IV.

Schnell gave Queen IV a copy of  “Changing for Good,” a counseling book. But to complement Bhutan’s concept of gross national happiness, Schnell crossed out “good” and wrote in “happiness.”

Queen IV, who established the Tarayana Foundation for the disadvantaged and helped set up rehabilitation centers around the country, returned the gesture with a gift for Schnell.

Having attended festivities celebrating the new king’s wedding during his visit, Schnell was moved when he opened the gift and found a ceremonial wedding plate with a picture of the newlyweds.

“It just blew me away,” he said.

The Plattsburgh-Bhutan Connection

Now in Bhutan for his third visit, Schnell is working at the National Hospital's Psychiatric Services and has witnessed the outside world’s response to the concept of gross national happiness. In February, he and his wife were invited to attend a meeting regarding U.N. resolution 65/309, which is known as Happiness and Well-being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm.

Schnell is in the process of organizing student exchange programs. One of the reasons he believes Bhutan would be a great country for Plattsburgh’s mental health counseling students to work is because English serves as the primary language of instruction in schools.

“There are not so many cultures that have been isolated and can also speak English,” he said.

Schnell hopes for SUNY Plattsburgh’s graduate counseling students to join in his Bhutanese experiences and, perhaps, even collect some happiness during their stay.

“We have a unique opportunity,” he said.

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