Wat Soriyaram pagoda, nestled in the remote rural area of Battambang province’s Moung Russey district, attracts hundreds of mentally ill people from across the country each month.
These individuals seek meditation and utilise the pagoda as a centre for mental education.
In serene surroundings amidst tall trees, Sok Thyda, one of the approximately 100 attendees, sits with her eyes closed, absorbing the teachings of a monk.
Thyda, a 35-year-old woman from Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district, is a mother of two. She has been grappling with family issues, primarily due to her son’s disregard for her advice and his lack of dedication to his studies.
She recounts her growing frustration with her son, which gradually deteriorated her mental well-being.
Initially attempting to soothe herself, Thyda found no relief until a friend introduced her to the pagoda, renowned for its teachings in meditation. Believing that the monks’ counsel might offer some solace, she decided to visit the pagoda, fearing that remaining confined at home would only exacerbate her mental distress.
Thyda expresses her views on family dynamics and the challenges of managing anger.
“Actually, we cannot tolerate controlling ourselves from being angry with family members if we encounter them daily. But if we distance ourselves from what we dislike for some time, then our feelings of unhappiness will diminish,” she explains.
Insights from chief monk
Tuy Sokhim, chief monk of Wat Soriyaram, shares that the pagoda offers guidance to people with mental illnesses through meditation. The centre registers about 100 to 200 people each month, the majority of whom suffer from mental health issues.
Most attendees, aged between 25 and 60, are women from various parts of Cambodia.
Sokhim says his research and interviews indicate that mental health problems stem from a mix of factors, including marital and economic family issues, affecting people regardless of their financial status.
Those who seek meditation at the pagoda come from diverse backgrounds, encompassing both affluent and less fortunate individuals, with a large number originating from Phnom Penh.
“As we have opened our doors to educating people, we have realised that there are many individuals suffering from [these] issues. Often, they seek spiritual solutions, but unfortunately, these can sometimes make matters worse. Once we became involved in the [matter], it became evident that many people, particularly women, are dealing with mental illness,” he says.
The chief monk explains that approximately 98 per cent of those who register for classes to calm or address their mental troubles are dealing with familial, spousal or child-related issues.
He emphasises the importance of identifying the root cause of the disturbance to facilitate effective treatment, drawing a parallel to a doctor’s need to understand an illness or its symptoms before they can cure it.
He elaborates on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama – the Buddha – who tailored his teachings to the natural tendencies and mindsets of individuals. Similarly, those seeking mental education at the pagoda require a personalised approach, where understanding the cause or root of their problems is crucial for effective intervention.
He summarises that the primary reasons for distress include family and partner issues, as well as financial burdens such as unresolved debts.
The monk highlights that the Dharma education approach should be tailored to the individual’s propensity. Therefore, he has arranged for attendees to stay on the pagoda’s premises, where there are currently four new buildings being constructed to house meditation practitioners.
Each building contains four rooms, accommodating up to four people per room, all under the pagoda’s responsibility.
He notes that some pagodas require payment for such services.
“But I do not believe in demanding payment. The contributions depend on the individuals who come for meditation. The pagoda provides meals throughout the day,” he said.
Sokhim outlines the schedule, which includes three sessions: a three-day session for mild mental issues, a one-week session for moderate cases and longer sessions for serious illnesses.
He notes that approximately 60 to 70 per cent of participants return to a state of normality after completing these sessions.
Wat Soriyaram currently houses over 40 monks. Breakfast is provided at the expense of the pagoda, while for lunch, monks typically seek donations from the public. Given the current situation where monetary offerings to monks are scarce, he sometimes travels abroad to solicit funds to support the educational process for people attending meditation at his pagoda.
DDMAC on mental health
Sun Sopanha, a volunteer member of the Divine Dharma Meditation Association of Cambodia (DDMAC), located in Prek Leap commune in Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changvar district, tells The Post that the majority of those attending or participating in meditation, particularly suffering from mental health issues, are women.
She notes that the practice is an effective component of psychotherapy, encompassing individuals ranging from their 20s into their 80s.
“Meditation therapy is effective when our minds are calm. It provides feedback. People who come to meditate receive treatment both physically and mentally,” she explains.
Sopanha shares that the association, operational for over a decade, is led by a teacher named Yun Bunkun, a Cambodian residing in Canada.
The organisation conducts only two meditation sessions per year, each lasting six full days. To achieve effectiveness, attendees are required to participate for the entire duration.
The association operates on voluntary contributions and provides temporary accommodation for participants.
“People who come for meditation, many of whom previously relied on medication, find that through [the practice], most have discontinued their medication and are healthier. This indicates the high effectiveness of meditation,” he says.
Sun Solida, a psychologist with the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation (TPO) Cambodia, previously explained to The Post that mental illness, akin to physical illness, affects people’s emotions, thoughts and behaviours, potentially altering beliefs and personality. She said these illnesses can significantly impact daily functioning for both individuals and their families.
“Overthinking can trigger an excessive release of hormones, causing the body to become overly active or, conversely, numb, leading to feelings of worthlessness and futility in the individual,” she said.
At the time, Solida elaborated that there are two primary types of mental illness. The first is associated with thought processes, often linked to depression. The second relates to anxiety disorders, which encompass a variety of diagnosable conditions, identifiable only through consultation with professionals.
Solida highlighted two main causative factors of mental illness: External factors include the environment, living conditions, social crises, relationships and family issues, while internal factors involve chemical changes in the brain, leading to observable abnormalities.