On their first day of class, Lynne Barnett told her students that they have a “very rich opportunity to help people help themselves”.
“We don’t rescue,” she told a group of 13 adult students sitting in a row across the classroom as she went through a slide presentation. “We empower and enable.”
The adult students are part of a first-of-its-kind, two-year course to earn a diploma for evidence-based health counselling at the University of Puthisastra. Health issues – and those surrounding mental health in particular – have long been inadequately addressed in the Kingdom, and such training is desperately needed to meet the country’s requirements, observers say.
The course recruited a mix of students – some are recent grade-12 graduates, while others are current NGO staffers employed as social workers and counsellors, but have only received training from their organisations, and lack formal accredited education in the field, Barnett said.
Barnett, who is the director of the Center for Health Counselling, helped develop the curriculum along with Cambodian therapists. She became aware there was a need for such a course in 2014 when working for an NGO in Siem Reap and found herself training the counsellors there.
“Working with them and working with the issues that the NGO faced . . . I quickly realised that the courses that were available were small NGO-based training courses, but there was nothing recognised nationally,” she said.
She acknowledged that the Royal University of Phnom Penh has a master’s programme in clinical psychology and counselling but noted that it is a medical model, while the new course will be a professional therapeutic relationship model.
Noting that organisers initially hoped to start with 25 students, Barnett said that nonetheless, the 13 accepted “are motivated and capable”.
Lina Chin, 30, one of the students, certainly seemed very engaged, peppering instructors with questions and comments. She currently works as a counsellor at Mercy Medical Center. “I hope to get professional skills, and I hope that I can use that to help other people with counselling,” she said.
After the course, students will be able to provide counselling services to people with mental health issues, histories of drug abuse, experience with domestic violence and those facing child protection issues. The programme is currently equivalent to an associate’s degree, though Barnett hopes that if it’s successful, it will be developed into bachelor’s and master’s programmes later.
Ny Leakena, who works as a social worker for NGO Agape International Missions, said she went to law school before going into a career in social work. “I think after I complete the course, I will have an understanding of the counselling guidelines, and I can help [people] in a formal way,” she said.
Chum Sopha, executive director for NGO Health and Development Alliance, said that the public lacks access to counselling services, and current counsellors are unprofessional and inadequately equipped to meet their needs. For example, he said some existing counsellors don’t keep information from their clients confidential.
Phul Sophearith, one of the Cambodian instructors, said the skills being taught were especially necessary in Cambodia, given both its dark history and Cambodians’ tendency to hide their problems.
“The suppression or ignorance is not the way.”