Help Unchain People with Mental Illness in Cambodia

Sarah Jonassen Bittman

Senior Technical Officer

The destructive legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime, which orchestrated the Cambodian genocide and took the lives of 25% of Cambodia’s population from 1975-1979, continues to impact Cambodian society at all levels, including widespread poverty and increased mental illness. Over a quarter of the population shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, and more than 10 percent suffer major depression, even though most of the current population were born after the fall of the regime.

Lack of awareness about mental health and treatment options prevents people from seeking help, and even if they are aware of available psychosocial services, families often can’t afford to take their relatives for treatment. Families who don’t know how to help their mentally ill relatives feel they have no other choice than to chain them up in order to protect them and others, and to hide them out of sight of the community. In rural villages, it is not uncommon to find people with mental illness chained to trees or posts. Some are abandoned entirely. Many families seek treatment from traditional healers or temples, who offer traditional remedies to expel the “spirits” they say possess the person with the mental illness. Due to a combination of intense stigmatization, lack of knowledge, and extreme poverty, psychosocial treatment is rarely sought.

Led by Dr. Sotheara Chhim, Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) Cambodia provides psychosocial support to patients with mental illness, and works with families and communities to raise awareness about treatment options.

With support from the LMG Project and its partner, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), TPO is launching its first crowdfunding campaign, to raise awareness of mental health issues in rural Cambodian communities and demonstrate the alternatives to chaining up family members struggling with mental illness. The goal of Operation Unchain is to raise $5,000 from at least 40 unique donors in 30 days. The funds, which will match a recent donation from King Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia, will support mobile teams to travel to rural areas to treat patients, educate families on how to care for their loved ones, and train local health workers so more community members can access the care they desperately need. The campaign launches today, June 1, 2015.

The potential long-term impact of Operation Unchain is significant: families that are overwhelmed will find relief as their relatives with mental illness gain more independence, realize their rights, and finally have the opportunity to participate in society. As family and community awareness increases, people are more likely to identify mental illness early, seek treatment, and prevent relapses. With appropriate treatment, patients can become more self-reliant, reducing the burden on their caretakers and even contributing to the economic development of the family.