Earlier this year, a mob in Takeo province beat a mentally ill man to death, then dragged his body into the rice paddies and set it on fire. The 27-year-old was suspected of robbery.
This week, Takeo Governor Lay Vannak launched a campaign to combat future crimes against mentally ill people found on the streets by sending them to live in local pagodas under the care of monks.
Vannak told Radio Free Asia the first step of his plan would involve lobbying local monks to teach meditation to those in their care, but mental health experts and rights activists urged caution yesterday.
Panha Pich, a clinical supervisor for the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO), said yesterday that while meditation can help “some people who have mental health problems”, many conditions require clinical treatment.
“When the mental health problem becomes severe, for example psychosis or schizophrenia – chronic conditions that need to be treated by medication for life – they need a
Pich said basic “social support, like food and a place to sleep”, would be helpful, but would not diminish the need for a doctor. Religious practices, he added, may fall on deaf ears, and could even cause additional harm to those who are severely ill.
“[Monks] believe there is a bad spirit inside the body so they use hitting to get [it] out,” he explained. Some monks will chant at the ill person or splash them with water.
“It is very harmful and hurts the [patient] more,” he said, emphasising, however, that not all monks would carry out such practices.
Sek Sisokhom, head of the psychology department at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said that she agreed with the governor that the Buddhist clergy could be an important, culturally acceptable resource for the mentally-ill. But she was quick to add that proper training would be required.
“Many Cambodians, particularly in countrysides (sic) or rural [areas], respond to their physical symptoms and unexplainable illness by seeking support or advice from monks,” she said in an email.
However, Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for human rights group Licadho, said he was unconvinced care in pagodas would provide healing.
“It would be a really big burden for monks if they cause trouble in [the] pagoda,” he said. “It’s better to send them where there are health officials.”
Sam Ath also warned of the potential for human rights violations when relocating groups of people into care centres.
“If pagodas or authorities detain the mentally ill people . . . this [would] violate their freedom,” Ath said.
Governor Vannak could not be reached. Ly Sovann, from the Ministry of Health, said he was unaware of Vannak’s plan and referred questions to National Health Program psychiatrist Chhit Sophal, who could also not be reached.