A recent study has estimated that 62 percent of Cambodian refugees living in the
United States suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with more than half
of those surveyed reporting serious depression in the last 12 months.
By contrast, the rate of PTSD among the US population as a whole is just three percent.
The study was conducted by the non-profit Rand Corporation and used a sample of 490
refugees aged 35 to 70 from the area around Long Beach, California, which is home
to approximately 17,000 refugees.
Results of the study were published August 3 in the Journal of the American Medical
Dr Sotheara Chhim, managing director of the Transcultural Pyscho-Social Organization
in Phnom Penh, said the results are consistent with the experiences of other refugee
"It doesn't surprise me that the number is so high in the United States,"
Chhim said. "Besides the trauma of the past, people may experience other traumas
settling into a foreign land and adopting to a new culture."
He said similar studies have been conducted with Vietnamese refugees and found those
living in Australia showed a higher percentage of PTSD symptoms than Vietnamese citizens
still living in their homeland.
The mental health of Cambodians still living in the kingdom has not been extensively
The most recent study of PTSD in Cambodia found that nearly three out of ten people
suffer from PTSD, according to results published by JAMA in 2001.
However, Ka Sun Baunat, manager of the National Program for Mental Health, believes
the broad statistics may hide layers of detail.
Baunat differentiates between Cambodian citizens who lived through the Khmer Rouge
years and those who did not, estimating that up to 60 percent of the survivors of
the Pol Pot regime suffer from PTSD, anxiety, depression or psychosis, compared with
40 percent among the rest of the population.
He also warned that the children of survivors are especially at risk.
"The mental health issues of the family affect the children," Baunat said,
pointing out that domestic violence is more frequent among parents who have PTSD
and can become a traumatic catalyst for a new generation of mental health troubles.
Compounding the problem is the lack of acknowledgement of mental health disorders
and scant resources to treat patients.
There are only 26 psychiatrists, 40 psychiatric nurses and 165 doctors who have training
in basic and primary mental health care to serve the entire population of 13 million
people, Baunat said.
Cambodia's mental health services are integrated into general health care, with outpatient
services attached to local clinics or regional hospitals in 16 provinces.
But there is only one in-patient clinic in the entire country.
"It is difficult to get funding, and to find qualified staff to run the in-patient
clinic," Baunat said, adding that they are developing the live-in facility in
Phnom Penh and hope to one day expand services in the provinces.
In addition to PTSD, Sotheara thinks Cambodians struggle with other equally harmful
mental health issues.
"Anxiety and depression are also a big thing," he said. "They're mostly
related to the constant hassle of the daily struggle to survive here."