Mental Health Professionals Look to Group Therapy to Aid Youth

In a country traumatized by the travails of war and poverty—yet largely stuck trying to medicate its mentally ill back to health—mental health professionals are pushing group therapy in the hope of reaching more troubled children and youths nationwide.

In Kandal province’s Takhmao City on Wednesday, about 20 health workers were being trained in group therapy for children and adolescents, a treatment that seeks to empower patients by introducing them to others with similar disorders and encouraging them to share coping mechanisms.

Bhoomikumar Jegannathan, the director of Caritas Cambodia’s center for child and adolescent mental health, where the training session was held, said behavioral and mental health disorders were prevalent among Cambodia’s youth following decades of hardship.

War-related trauma persisted, while knowledge of and skills in parenting had been lost between generations as families were separated and killed during the Khmer Rouge period, Dr. Jegannathan said.

However, a belief among many in Cambodia’s medical community that mental health illnesses can be treated solely by medication has hindered the adoption of methods like group therapy, which has the benefit of being low-cost and reaching many people at one time, he said.

“Many developed countries have moved away from the medical model of mental health to the social model—psychologists are involved; social workers are involved,” he said. “In Cambodia, there is no psychiatric social worker training. Slowly, they are coming up, but there is a long way to go.”

According to Caritas, 40 percent of the population is under the age of 15, with children experiencing higher than average rates—both in developed and developing countries—of mental health problems and developmental delays.

“Paternal alcoholism, marital strife, spousal abuse, single parent homes, displacement and deprivation due to sociopolitical situation are all cause for childhood stress in Cambodia,” says a summary on the group’s website.

Pat Puthy, psychological service coordinator at the mental health center in Takhmao, said Caritas had tested a group therapy program for 17 adolescent and adult victims of domestic violence as well as sex and labor trafficking in Battambang province earlier this year.

“We found that their symptoms decreased and their health improved,” he said.

The center in Takhmao, based out of the Chey Chumneas Referral Hospital, charges patients based on their income, and 60 to 70 percent receive their treatment free of charge.

Sek Sisokhom, head of the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s psychology department, said group therapy was common in private practices but had yet to attain a wider reach.

“If we are talking about the national coverage, it is not national yet because our human resources and services are very limited,” she said.

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