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Social status and mental health

Anthropologist’s team to study identity and well-being in Nepal

By Kim McGrath Office of Communications and External Relations
Left to right: Wake Forest students Andrew Ellis and Putri Powell ('12) with Dalit children in Nepal.
Left to right: Wake Forest students Andrew Ellis and Putri Powell ('12) with Dalit children in Nepal.

That Steve Folmar’s research in Nepal has been funded by the National Science Foundation’s cultural anthropology program for more than $150,000 is reason to celebrate. For students, however, the best news is that the support brings additional opportunities to be a part of the project.

In this landlocked country wedged between China and India, Folmar, whose research focuses on issues of identity and social justice, is gathering anthropologists, psychiatrists and psychologists to explore the connections between social status, identity and mental health.

Take a course in Nepal

  • Students interested in registering for the summer research course in Nepal should contact professor Steve Folmar. Deadline for registration is February 1.

“Most would assume that people of high social status have fewer mental health issues and those with low social status have more. But this is not a neat relationship,” says Folmar.

A person of low social status who views their position in society as being influenced by culturally constructed boundaries, is more likely to see a way out of their current conditions in life than a person who sees their status as a result of something uncontrollable, such as gender or skin color, Folmar says. “What we are hoping to discover is whether the freedom for social and economic movement in a society is connected to a healthier mental outlook.”

Why Nepal?

A husband and wife of the "tailor" caste working in their shop.

Socially, religiously, medically, economically and in any other way you can think of, Folmar says the caste system puts a heavy burden on the Dalits in Nepal — the group most discriminated against under the system. “It is one of the most intransigent systems of oppression on earth and creates a bad environment for the people at the bottom.” This social system provides barriers between groups that go beyond class designations and makes social status easier to study.

Folmar and co-principal investigators Lisa Kiang, an assistant professor of psychology who studies self and identity and Guy Palmes an associate professor in child and adolescent psychiatry at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, are focusing on how Nepalese teens form ideas about their identity during this critical time in human development.

Though the project site is based in Besisahar, 90 miles or so west of Kathmandu, Folmar and his team anticipate that the results or their work will help inform studies looking at identity in marginalized groups in other countries, including the United States.

The research

Folmar’s Nepal project will take existing research a step further by including upper and middle status people in the study.

“If high status people see their status as changeable, does this lead to negative mental health issues from the worry that they might lose their social position? If so, this is opposite of low status people who experience changeable status as a positive for their mental health,” Folmar says. “We are also curious what the middle status group will look like. Adding these components will provide a model that will cover more situations.”

When Folmar’s students travel to Nepal in May, they will assist his graduate research team in collecting and analyzing data. The interdisciplinary nature of the project means undergraduates with a variety of academic interests will enjoy unique opportunities to collaborate one-on-one, as well as with medical school students and the Nepalese.

Folmar has been conducting research projects in Nepal since 1979.

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