Ken Sotheary, 20, knows plenty about the perils of mental illness. Not only does the second-year psychology student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh study mental health issues as part of her course, but she has also had her own brush with depression.
“I had problems because of study pressures, but it wasn’t so bad that it made me want to commit suicide like some others,” she said on Friday.
Along with hundreds of other undergraduates, Ms. Sotheary was attending the second Youth Mental Health Day event—complete with mini-counseling sessions, art therapy sessions and video screenings—on RUPP’s campus, which aimed to break down the stigma surrounding mental illness in Cambodian
Sek Sisokhom, head of the university’s psychology department, said many people were too concerned about the perception of others to seek help for depression, anxiety and other mental
“When they have mental health problems they are afraid to seek counseling services because they are worried that people will call them crazy,” she said.
Ms. Sisokhom said poverty, unemployment and the burden of responsibility for supporting their families—combined with increasing ease of access to drugs and alcohol—put young Cambodians at high risk of developing mental health problems.
And the scale of the problem across society is large.
A study carried out by RUPP in 2012 showed that the country’s suicide rate is 42.5 per 100,000 people, far higher than the worldwide average of 16.
Elizabeth Hogger Klaus, a psychologist with German development agency GIZ who organized Friday’s event, said a lack of mental health services combined with the legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime were contributing to the problem.
“The recent history, which everyone is aware of, that has an impact on families—domestic violence is a problem and also parenting is a problem because most parents don’t have good role models because it was war time, and they might have trauma and loss issues themselves,” she said.
Student Ms. Sotheary, who sought counseling for her depression, said that shining the spotlight on the issue more regularly could help other young people
to address their mental health problems.
“Looking after your mental health is not same as a simple blood test, because problems are caused by society, internal factors or family,” she said.