Mental illness is a problem of critical scope in Cambodia, but many obstacles remain to helping the nation’s mentally ill, health authorities said at a conference last week.
Dealing with mental illness is difficult for doctors with conventional medical training because the symptoms are not as clear, said Dr Ka Sunbaunat, director general of the national mental health service, at the opening of a conference on plans for national mental health initiatives.
But in Cambodia, decades of civil war have left the population traumatized, making mental health a dire problem.
“After living through war, people develop chronic mental illness, and when they become parents their illness affects the next generation that never directly experienced [the trauma of war],” said Mam Bun Heng, secretary of state in the Ministry of Health.
The conference, which took place Thursday and Friday, examined the many obstacles to improving mental health in Cambodia. The participants—more than 80 psychiatrists and NGO workers from across the country—issued an urgent recommendation Friday: An appeal to the Ministry of Health to make mental health a priority and draft a national mental health plan.
One of the most formidable obstacles facing Cambodia’s mentally ill today is a pervasive stigma on mental illness. “Mental illness is not craziness. We shouldn’t be afraid of [mentally ill people]—we have to take care of them,” Ka Sunbaunat said.
In addition, among Cambodia’s largely rural population, few people are aware of mental illness. Ninety percent of mentally ill Cambodians don’t go to psychiatrists—they go to physicians, then resort to traditional healers when that doesn’t work, he said.
The mentally ill need specialized attention from psychiatrists, he said. “It is necessary to understand the connection between the body and the mind; the symptoms are there, but [it is] not a physical pathology,” he said.
Public mental health services currently exist in 10 of Cambodia’s provinces and municipalities.