Researchers from three leading US universities – Harvard, University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) and Georgetown University – have jointly created a training and mentoring programme on “Southeast Asian Mental Health” for those working in the fields of mental health and psychosocial Support (MHPSS), with Cambodia chosen as the first target for the initiative.

The initiative’s first major event will be a two-day virtual Southeast Asian Mental Health Conference, which will take place on September 10-11 and focus on the theme of “Adversity and Resilience.”

The conference will include presenters from Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar, as well as researchers from the US institutions sponsoring the conference along with guest speakers from Vanderbilt University.

All of these activities are part of the Southeast Asian Mental Health Initiative (SEAMHI), which is a joint effort by researchers from the sponsoring universities who are all working in the region and want to do something to address the needs of the local mental health professionals.

The initiative was first established in 2021 with support from the California-based Foundation for Psychocultural Research.

“This initiative aims to shift the mental health landscape in Southeast Asia by fostering bilateral exchanges between those in Southeast Asia and those in the refugee communities,” said Kathy Trang, one of the founders of the SEAMHI.

“We want to empower these young scholars to conduct rigorous, collaborative research that can translate locally grounded science into real-world solutions and the need for skilled professionals in the field of MHPSS in Cambodia is great,” Trang, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health, added.

The Intercultural Psychosocial Organisation (IPO) has reported that Cambodia is still in the process of recovery, with reported rates of trauma-related mental health problems still relatively high.

IPO estimates that about 40 per cent of Cambodians suffer from mental health and emotional problems, including those due to traumatic experiences that took place back in the Khmer Rouge era.

There are also widespread concerns about the intergenerational effects of trauma, high rates of suicide and aggressive behaviour displayed by youths, according to a large-scale survey of mental health issues in Cambodia conducted by the Royal University of Phnom Penh in 2012.

Despite the huge need for MHPSS support in the Kingdom the available resources do not come close to meeting the demand. Most of the little healthcare infrastructure in Cambodia that did exist was destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period and the total number of inpatient psychiatric beds has remained around 10-15 for the past decade.

Further exacerbating the problem for the rural areas where 85 per cent of the population lives, mental health resources are concentrated in urban centres.

According to an academic study published in 2020 by BJPSYCH International, there are around 60 trained psychiatrists serving Cambodia’s 16.7 million citizens.

“Those of us studying mental health in Southeast Asia kept coming up against this gap in resources and professional development. We met all these local professionals doing amazing and important work and we wanted to be able to connect them to new networks and opportunities,” said Elena Lesley, a PhD who has worked in Cambodia for more than 18 years and is one of the initiative’s co-founders.

SEAMHI aims to start addressing this gap by providing opportunities for skill-building, networking and mentorship among early-career practitioners and researchers in Southeast Asia. The initiative will initially focus on Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar, but plans to expand to other countries in the region.

Representatives from all of the partner countries met on the UCLA campus in August for an intensive work session in which they made plans for the future efforts of the initiative.

“It was a very fruitful session. I learned a lot from the group discussions and opportunities to network with junior and senior scholars. Our discussions of qualitative research and how to craft research proposals were especially beneficial,” said Bunna Phoeun, a PhD clinical psychologist from Cambodia.

“The goal is to hold a biannual in-person conference on mental health in Southeast Asia, expand the initiative’s mentoring program, undertake research projects related to needs assessment for practitioners and researchers in Southeast Asia and create a new academic and networking association here,” he explained.

According to Bunna, more than 400 people have registered for this first conference, at which 57 speakers will present their work on topics such as affective science, disruption and recovery, adversity and resilience, interventions and mental health in families and schools.

Notable speakers at the conference include Dr Robert Lemelson, an anthropologist from UCLA whose work focuses on trans-cultural psychiatry and Southeast Asia and Professor Bahr Weiss from Vanderbilt University, whose expertise includes cultural influences on the development and treatment of psychopathology.

Professor Bonnie Kaiser from UC-San Diego will also give a workshop on development, adaptation and validation of cross-cultural mental health assessment tools.

“We are excited for the future of SEAMH and would like to invite anyone to attend who is interested in the conference or in the larger initiative of strengthening MHPSS infrastructure in Southeast Asia,” said Trang.