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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Psychology as a highway to national healing

Psychology as a highway to national healing

When 23-year-old Sreng Nearirath began studying psychology at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, she knew exactly how it would complement her other subject, law.

“Psychology and law are very interrelated subjects. I am interested in wars, world wars, and that is why I want to know why people killed each other. So, I guess studying law and psychology would answer my questions,” said Nearirath, now a legal officer at a prominent bank in the capital.

Studying for both majors at the same time was difficult for her, but psychology, she says, has taught her patience and positive thinking.
Since she was a child, Nearirath has been curious about her country’s past.

It was over 30 years ago that Cambodia suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime. The trauma of losing family members, homes and possessions left many individuals in need of treatment by psychologists and other counsellors specialising in trauma and crisis.

“I think there have been about 2 million who have had their life threatened by near-death encounters, so I am sure they have trauma that they need to consult experts about to help them move on in their lives,” she said.

“If many people become interested in this field and are highly encouraged to study this more, they will be capable in helping the elder generation resume a normal mental state.”

Some 500 undergraduate psychology students are adopting the same strategy of combining psychology with historical knowledge to contribute to their country’s well-being, said Somchan Sovanndara, a psychology professor and practitioner for over 20 years. Somchan Sovann-
dara says that before the bitter war regime, no one studied psychology as part of the higher education curriculum, and only a few went on to pursue careers in the field and become full-fledged practising psychologists.

“Cambodians looked at psychology in a different way before, yet now it’s become very popular among students,” he said. He confirmed that Cambodia is in dire need of well-trained psychologists to help Khmer Rouge survivors suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In high demand
Somchan Sovanndara assures the nation’s youth that there are many jobs offered to students with psychology degrees, and that they need not worry about finding them. “Besides, Cambodia now is welcoming organisations with trained psychologists to work closely with people, so psychology is timely for Cambodians and has a rightful space in my country,”he said, adding that he sees the subject in high demand, and of critical importance.

He encourages the youths of today to study psychology in order to deepen their understanding and have an analysis of the emotional wounds to be healed after decades of civil war and trauma.

Somchan Sovanndara said he is aware the subject is unattractive to some. “Usually, students study psychology as a complement to other major subjects they learn, such as law, communication, military, criminal psychology, education, business. And, the graduates can find jobs as a professor, counsellors, and researchers and NGO staff working with disadvantaged children or people with mental illness.”

Nineteen-year-old Choun Chanreasy, a psychology student, hopes an increase in psychology training will help her country withstand the trauma and depression of many years of past suffering.

“I want to understand other people’s mentality, work for NGOs and do research to help Cambodians,” she said.

Somchan Sovanndara said that psychology is available as a subject major and taught as a discipline at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
He added that the subject was introduced in 1994, and that only 510 graduates in the field have so far been produced.

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