Cambodia seeks way out of post 'killing fields' mental health crisis

Mon Oct 5, 2015 7:06pm EDT
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By Astrid Zweynert

PREAH AONG KAR, Cambodia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hing Phon thought she was losing her mind when night after night terrifying nightmares jolted her awake as she dreamt of her husband, eldest son and 18 other relatives being killed by the Khmer Rouge during their brutal reign in Cambodia.

Pitting poorer farmers against richer ones, the Khmer Rouge inflicted extreme cruelty and violence on people in her village in the southern province of Kampot when they took control of the area in the early 1970s.

"So many nights I could not close my eyes because the memories of my loved ones would haunt me," the 81-year-old said, resting in the shade outside her house in a hamlet some 120 km (75 miles) south of the capital Phnom Penh.

"We lived through a nightmare," she said, her back stooped from years of forced labor in the fields during Pol Pot's "year zero" quest to create a classless, agrarian society.

During the regime's genocidal wave of terror from 1975 to 1979, at least 1.8 million people - about a quarter of the population - died through torture, execution, disease, overwork or starvation.

It is a legacy that left millions of Cambodians with psychological scars the impoverished country is ill-equipped to deal with due to deep-rooted mistrust and a lack of money for reconciliation and mental health treatment, experts said.

Cambodia has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, a study by the Royal University of Phnom Penh said, with 27 percent of those surveyed suffering from acute anxiety and almost 17 percent from depression.

It also has more people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder than any other nation, with estimates ranging from 14 to 33 percent, compared to a global average of less than 0.4 percent, according to a study by the U.S.-based Leitner Center for International Law and Justice.   Continued...