Now 51 years old, Chhim Sotheara lost his childhood as he spent his formative years living in the thick of civil war, genocide and conflict.
And while he is unable to turn back the clock and experience a more idyllic childhood himself, he has done the next best thing by dedicating his life to ensuring Cambodians receive the mental health treatment that his generation never did.
Now executive director of Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation Cambodia (TPO), his daily life now revolves around supporting Cambodian people recover from post-traumatic stress and mental health issues.
Sitting in his office near Phnom Penh Hanoi Friendship Boulevard, Sotheara tells The Post: “In 2000, after completing my Master’s degree in Psychological Medicine from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, I decided I would like to work for TPO."
“At that time there were only about 10 professional psychologists in a country in which about eight million people had post-traumatic related mental health problems. As 80 per cent of these were located in rural areas, it was extremely difficult for them to seek psychological treatment.”
Due to his academic credentials and real life experience, Sotheara was called as an expert to speak at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia – also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, established to try the most senior members of the Khmer Rouge for their crimes – where he spoke of the ongoing psychological impact of that time on survivors.
Sotheara was born in 1968 in a well-off family in Phnom Penh. His father died when he was a small child, but his mother was a government official in the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.
Life was relatively peaceful until 1975, as while he was studying in grade three, the Khmer Rouge evacuated his family from the capital.
Fooled by the false promise that the evacuation would last only a few days, Sotheara and his family did not prepare for a long time away from their home.
The young Sotheara only packed a few school books, thinking that he did not want to fall behind the other students in his class when he returned to the city.
But school would no longer be important, nor any aspect of his old life – torn apart at the blink of an eye in the name of Marxism.
Together with six of his family members, he walked from Phnom Penh to Kandal province’s Kandal Stoeung district, at which point he was separated from his family. Sotheara was then ordered to live in a cottage with other children, all of whom were conscripted to work digging a canal.
“I lost all my childhood. Play is a vital aspect of childhood in order to learn both at school and at home. But the Khmer Rouge did not allow children to play. We were forced to work.
“Life at that time was extremely difficult. I had to do laborious work and walk bare feet, it was extremely painful. Even worse was that I did not have enough food to eat and a proper place to sleep. Even though I was exhausted I could not sleep because I was so scared; I was a child, but I could get beaten instantly after making any mistake,” he says.
In 1978, when Sotheara turned 10, he was able to see his mother for the first time since 1975. His family fully reunited after Cambodia’s liberation in 1979, and shortly after they moved home to Phnom Penh.
‘Many survivors were sick’
In the years after, life returned to something resembling normality. A good drawer, Sotheara dreamed of following in his mother’s footsteps and becoming an architect. But his mother, seeing the physical and psychological suffering of the post-war Cambodian people, urged him to go into the medical profession and become a doctor to serve his country.
“My mother wanted me to study medical science as she saw that many people who survived the Khmer Rouge regime were sick, physically and mentally. Many doctors were killed during that time – as far as I know, in 1979, there were about 40 doctors in the country. It was a bad time to be unwell,” he says.
In 1992, Sotheara graduated from the University of Health Sciences, before going on to work as a doctor in Preah Vihear province with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) for one year, where he learned English.
In 1993, he decided to volunteer in Kampong Chhnang province, where he would first work with patients with mentally health issues.
“I met some patients who wanted to commit suicide. I saw people walking into the centre crying and laughing simultaneously – people nearby would think they were possessed by an evil spirit,” he says, describing his shock at encountering mentally ill people for the first time.
This was just the beginning in Sotheara’s journey into understanding how mental health impacts a post-conflict society like the one he was living in.
In 1994, the University of Health Science and Norway’s Oslo University established the first mental health development programme in Cambodia. The course was held in Phnom Penh’s Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital; he was one of only 10 people receiving the training.
This would spark his desire for further academic training, first gaining his Master’s in Psychological Medicine in New South Wales, before pursuing his PhD at Monash University in Melbourne between 2008 and 2012.
During this same time, he was also working with TPO on mental health issues in Cambodia. He has now been with the organisation for 17 years.
Since officially registering at the Ministry of Interior in 2000, TPO has provided treatment to a total of 240,000 patients in the Kingdom. Every year TPO provides services to some 10,000 patients suffering from mental health issues through direct consultation at treatment centres, as well as indirectly through trainings and peer healing.
As a result of his groundbreaking work in mental health in Cambodia, he received the 2012 International Law and Justice’s Human Rights Award from the Leitner Center at Fordham University School of Law in the US. While in 2017 he was also the winner of the 2017 Dr Guislain ‘Breaking the Chains of Stigma’ Award in Ghent, Belgium on World Health Day for Mental Health.
“With the award I received $50,000, which was used to help release Cambodian people from mental health problems. .
“In previous years, mental health services were very rare as people did not believe that mental health issues were real. But now that services are offered in Cambodia, we see more and more cases of mental health problems in Cambodian society. More and more people come to us to receive treatment,” he says.