PHNOM PENH, Cambodia— In 2012, the Royal University of Phnom Penh interviewed around 2,600 people. This was the first time an attempt had been made to define the scale of Cambodia’s mental health problems.
The study revealed that over 27% of those interviewed had acute anxiety and around 16.7% experienced depression while the study also revealed that the suicide rate in Cambodia was around 42.35 for every 100,000 people. In a list of countries ranked by suicides, that number puts Cambodia as second highest in the world.
Other mental health problems, including anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suicide, have been estimated at higher levels among survivors of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge was a group of communist extremists who managed to take control of the countries in 1975. Over 1.7 million people—or one-fourth of the population—died during the four years the Khmer Rouge held control.
Currently, the proportion of people with mental health problems is larger among survivors of the Khmer Rouge than those who are not. 2.7% of the total population of Cambodia lives with PTSD, however the percentage of survivors with PTSD is higher, averaging around 11.4%.
“It’s a big problem here,” said Chok Thida, head of the mental health department at Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital—which is the only state hospital that offers in-patient care for those suffering from mental health problems. “Look at people’s daily lives. They struggle and it’s stressful, and that leads to all sorts of mental problems that people can’t cope with.”
Thida added that a majority of patients live in poverty and have a hard time finding the cash needed to pay the $5 required for the initial consultation before being able to get treatment.
Along with that, there’s also the difficulty in getting treatment even if they’ve managed to scrape up the $5 as the Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital only has 10 beds in their mental health ward. Cambodia also suffers from a lack of medical professionals skilled in treating people with mental health problems. In the past 20 years, only 48 psychiatrists have been cleared to practice. A constant money shortage also continues to be a problem for the country.
According to Satya Pholy, a counselor in Phnom Penh, many Cambodians refuse to acknowledge the issue of mental health problems and that there is a stigma in Cambodian society about seeking help for a mental health issue.
While Cambodia has relied on NGOs for aid in the past, most of the funds given to them are used to develop schools and irrigation systems, or to develop medicine to prevent malaria or HIV/AIDS. Few aid workers decide to focus on mental health, therefore making the issue one of the most overlooked in Cambodia.
“Mental health is not a priority for donors,” said Thida, “but I don’t understand why because it affects so many people but nobody cares.”
There has been some progress, though. In 2005, the Center for Victims of Torture (based out of St. Paul) partnered with the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO Cambodia) to assist in providing high quality mental health services to those survivors. The aid continues to this day and falls under three areas: mental health treatment and healing, monitoring and evaluation of the impact of mental health services and organizational development.
– Monica Newell