As the government plans to transfer roughly 60 percent of detainees at the notorious Prey Speu detention center to a “mental illness” center in Kandal province, mental health experts expressed doubts this week over the country’s capacity to provide proper care.
According to Social Affairs Ministry spokesman Toch Channy, Prime Minister Hun Sun approved the creation of the new center to host and care for mentally ill Cambodians from Prey Speu and across the country last week.
“This will be the national center for treatment and care of mentally ill people,” he said, adding that it would open “soon.”
The center will be located on the same property as the Khmer-French-Hungarian Friendship Orphanage Center in Kandal Stung district, he said, adding that treatment would be based on recommendations from the Ministry of Health.
Ministry of Health spokesman Ly Sovann said he was only aware of vague plans for the center. “The Ministry of Health would provide expert health officials,” he said before conceding that “the ministry does not have expert doctors to treat them.”
According to Om Plaktin, vice president of EMDR Cambodia, an association of therapists that researches and practices trauma treatment, experts would prove hard to find in Cambodia.
“Nowadays, in the [Khmer] Soviet Hospital, some days one psychiatrist needs to meet more than 40 clients,” he said, adding that they lack time for counseling patients.
To treat mental illness—widely considered to refer to mood and behavior disorders such as depression or addiction and exclude mental retardation—a center would need psychiatrists for medicine, psychologists for counseling and social workers for rehabilitation, Mr. Plaktin said.
In order to support a nationwide center, “there should be more experts to train us to be more skillful, to help the people,” he added.
Megan Carters, a clinical psychologist at Khmer Counseling and Psycho-Education Services, said mental health treatment should work toward “integration with the community, rather than being full- time in a particular center.”
City Hall Spokesman Mean Chanyada said 60 percent of the estimated 300 detainees already hosted at Prey Speu—officially called the Phnom Penh Social Affairs Center—are mentally ill.
However, both he and Mr. Channy declined to explain the range of mentally ill patients the new center would house or what treatment it would offer.
Chhim Sotheara, executive director of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization Cambodia, said to be successful, the center would need to be part of a broader plan to treat mentally ill Cambodians.
“I think it has to have a strong community project that would treat and rehabilitate these people in their community. This would need all support from family, community, NGOs and other stakeholders,” Dr. Sotheara said in an email.
“What I [am] afraid [of] is that the center would become the ‘people warehouse’ in the future.”