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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Phnom Penh bridge plays host to increasing number of suicides

Phnom Penh bridge plays host to increasing number of suicides

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Suicides are on the rise, but a lack of understanding of mental illness means it is often the untrained, ill-equipped police guarding the Japanese Bridge who deal with the despairing

VANDY RATTANA

A young boy looks out over the Tonle Bassac from Phnom Penh’s Japanese Bridge - a popular suicide spot.


SUICIDE: If you need help, please contact

  • TPO Cambodia - Community Mental Health Program:
    www.tpocambodia.org, Tel: 023-218-478 or 023-219-189

    Offices in Phnom Penh, Battambang, Pursat, Banteay

    Meanchey and Kampong Thom.

  • Sunrise Mental Clinic

    Open 24 hours, Tel: 012-545-565

    Offices at #112, Street, 432, Sangkat Toultompoun 2, Khan 7 Makara (Behind Chinese Embassy)

  • CCAMH - Center for Child and Adolescent Mental Health

    In Phnom Penh, Tel: 023-210-757

    At Chey Chumneas Hospital, Takhmau, Kandal Province

    Tel: 023- 300- 534

    Email: caritas-ccmh@forum.org.kh

TUESDAY evening, just as the light was beginning to fade, a young woman walked out across the Japanese Bridge. She made a striking silhouette in the dusk of the evening, leaning against the stout metal rail of the bridge, the breeze ruffling her skirts and carrying her scent across the road. To the casual passersby, she was simply a pretty young girl out da-leang, or promenading.

But the police on duty along the bridge said they knew better than most, having seen more than 25 people last year catapult themselves over the low railing, seeking a watery death below.

Alert, the officers slunk out of their guard posts and followed the young woman's increasingly erratic steps. Coming up close behind her they heard her cry, her body shook visibly with fear and, as she neared the edge of the bridge, the police knew their prediction was right.

"I could not control myself," said the woman, Chea Srey Phea, a 22-year-old waitress at a Phnom Penh restaurant who recently flung herself from the bridge but was pulled from the water by police.

"I was very angry with my boyfriend because he had betrayed me. I know killing myself is not good but I hate myself and I don't want to see or meet anybody ever again; that is why I chose to finish my life," she said.

The police stationed on the Japanese Bridge - also called the Chruoy Changvar Bridge - spotted Chea Srey Phea and stopped her from jumping, instructing her to return home immediately.  Chea Srey Phea then went to her boyfriend's home and asked him for US$200. He refused her request, and so she immediately returned once more to jump from the bridge. This time she was successful.

"I was so scared when I jumped, and I thought I would die quickly because I cannot swim. But the police saved me and told me not to do it again. I wanted to die but now I don't know how," she said.

We are seeing more suicides each year and more people

Presenting with mental illness, particularly depression.

A popular jumping point

Sem Saroeun, chief of police at Chruoy Changvar Bridge, said that suicides from the span are common.

"Most of the people who commit suicide here make an impulsive decision. They are disappointed with their lovers, or they are disabled people or HIV-positive people. However,  the bridge is most famous for those suffering from heartbreak," he said.
"It is very difficult to save them because we can't always tell who will jump. Sometimes, though, it is easy. They are crying and look strangely at the people around them."

Sem Saroeun said that his team has requested training and assistance from City Hall on how best to deal with suicidal people. Though City Hall has said it will help, nothing has yet been done.

A rising trend

Yim Sobothtra, deputy chief of psychiatry at the Cambodian-Russian Friendship Hospital,  said suicide is on the rise in Cambodia.

"We don't have any statistics for how many people commit suicide year to year; there are no funds available for such research. But I can tell you anecdotally that we are seeing more suicides each year and more people presenting with mental illness, particularly depression," he said. 

According to Yim Sobothtra, those most at risk of suicide are men aged between 25 and 45.  

But all high-risk cases will usually have a family history of suicide and mental illness and will have made previous attempts, he said.

Others are experiencing a stressful life event, such as a relationship break-up or the death of a close family member or friend, or they might be suffering from drug/alcohol abuse, or a chronic physical disease such as HIV/Aids.

"The most popular ways people choose to kill themselves in Cambodia is by taking an overdose of medicine, jumping from a bridge or ingesting a poison," Yim Sobothtra said.

He said the causational factors behind suicide attempts can vary wildly, but there is usually an underlying feeling of despair.

"People decide to kill themselves for all sorts of reasons,  but many cases have in common a strong feeling of hopelessness. They are disappointed people, feeing that their life is useless and they are very, very lonely."

In Cambodia, as in many societies, suicide and mental illnesses such as depression, which can predispose people to suicide, are widely misunderstood, he said.

"Society thinks people who commit suicide are bad, short- sighted and incapable. But they don't understand the difficulties of mental illness when they don't face these problems themselves," he said.

Throwing their lives away

Yav Sophal, 44, has lived beneath the Chruoy Changvar Bridge for three years.  She says she often sees people jump from the bridge and pities their weakness.

"I think people who jump from the bridge must have mental problems. I think they are wrong in taking this action, and I wonder why they think suicide will solve their problems," she said.

"It is useless to take such action, and they are very cowardly people. Society does not encourage this practice, and it certainly does not force them to do it," she added.

Phan Chanpeou, professor of psychology at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, says it is attitudes such as these that mean suicide and the factors contributing to it (such as mental illness) are not being adequately addressed at an early enough stage to prevent unnecessary suicides in Cambodia. This lack of understanding is compounded by a severe lack of resources -  there are only 26 psychiatrists and 40 psychiatric nurses in the entire country.

How common is it?

 The Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation - a mental health NGO that has worked in Cambodia since 1995 - estimates that some 30 percent of the population suffer from mental health problems, the majority of which go un-treated. In comparison,  they estimate the current figure in most Western countries is four percent. 

"People who decide to kill themselves usually suffer from serious mental problems," said Phan Chanpeou. "Such people feel they have no control over their life and view themselves as genuinely crazy.

"I have noticed that the government is paying more attention to educate those in society who work with people who suffer from mental problems. But I want the government to continue to push them to seek counselling and realise that they are not, in fact, crazy," Phan Chanpeou said.

Thai Thorn, 29, a monk at Unaloam Pagoda, looked suprised when the Post came to ask him about suicide, and sad when he has to speak of it. His voice rose quickly, filled with emotion, as he explained that committing suicide is against Buddhist beliefs.

"I think people who commit suicide do not know how to solve their problems and do not know how to ask for help  -  they must hate themselves," he said.

"According to Buddhist teachings, if someone commits suicide they will not be saved ... for 500 years. People should not commit suicide because the Buddha does not teach it," he said.

Buddhist teachings can help people who may be feeling close to suicide, he said.

"In order to divert people from committing suicide, they must remember that no one is perfect and there are other ways to solve our problems and help ourselves besides suicide," he said.


THe body hunter: Fishing corpses out of the water

Mat Chriya, 45, a fisherman who lives beneath the Chruoy Changvar

Bridge, has been diving for bodies for nearly 30 years, he says. "I

have taken nearly 1,000 dead bodies from the bottom of the river in

Phnom Penh and also in the sea at Sihanoukville since I began diving in

1979," he says, "Sometimes when I dive to look for a body, I find 12

dead." Mat Chriya says he was initially frightened of the work, but his

skill motivated him to continue: on his first jump 10 people dived

before him and could not locate any dead bodies, but when he jumped, he

was immediately successful. After that, he became sought after as a

body diver. "I just want to help all those people who have died in the

river. It is difficult when I get sick and I still have to dive. On

those days I am afraid of ghosts, and one day I became unconscious

after taking too many dead from the bottom of the river," he said. This

year, he has found six dead bodies beneath the bridge. "I ask between

US$100 and $2,000" according to the means of the families, he says. "I

don't want to continue this work but I feel pity for the families who

come to me and cry, begging me to help. That is why I cannot stop."

ADDITIONAL REPORTING by Khoun Leakhana

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