Making My Peace … with World Mental Health Day 2023 in Cambodia
October 10 was World Mental Health Day 2023 with the theme “Mental health is a universal human right.”
I was in rural Cambodia, talking with 19-22-year-old university students.
The Covid-19 global pandemic affected school-aged students everywhere, placing mental health firmly in the spotlight, especially due to institutional closures, loss of family income, the transition to remote learning, the stress on friendship groups, postponed examinations, and changes to examination procedures. Added to the challenges for rural students attending universities in cities was the cost of rent and fuel, uncertainty about dormitory life, or living with relatives, host families, or friends.
Since the pandemic, the Asia Development Bank said that, in the Asia and Pacific region, nearly 70 million people have fallen into extreme poverty. In Cambodia, the pandemic forced half a million families into poverty. The tourism industry was devastated. The students I spoke with were from those rural families.
According to UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, 14 percent of youth (one in seven individuals) aged 10-19 experienced a mental health disorder in Cambodia in 2022. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15-19-year-olds globally. In Cambodia in 2022, at least 813 youths took their own life in total, with most of them in the at-risk group of 15-19-year-olds. About half a million youth are affected by depression and anxiety, which are major contributors to suicide.
The pandemic increased stress and anxiety for university students in Cambodia, but it also increased their voices and campaigns for the government to address these mental health contributors.
In 2022, UNICEF and UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, introduced the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) initiative with the government. They launched digital and mobile platforms to provide Cambodians with information on mental health, opportunities to be vocal about it, and a free helpline counselling service. Associated campaigns include #FeelBetterWhen and the Parenting Tips initiative to help parents spot signs of anxiety in their children, with access to support in maintaining their own mental health.
UNICEF and UNFPA said that unleashing the potential of Cambodia’s youth means nurturing their mental well-being, ‘and when the mind thrives, the country prospers too.’
Returning to the university students that I spoke with, all studying for a computing degree, the topic turned to personal well-being and mental health. They shared their list of stressors and triggers. It was a long list. From rural areas, they applied for, and were awarded, a scholarship to support their studies as they contemplated how they were going to pay for tuition, rent, fuel, food, and health insurance. They were only the financial challenges – there were social and psychological challenges too.
Most of them will complete their course by 2026, the 50th anniversary of my under-graduate degree. In 1976, as I was entering university, the Khmer Rouge regime, under Pol Pot, ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, the time of the Cambodian genocide, known as the Killing Fields. Up to three million persons died. For the students in front of me, it was their grandparent’s era.
In the time of Covid-19, there were 3,056 confirmed deaths out of 138,941 confirmed cases. The students spoke personally, openly, and honestly, not only about the impact of Covid-19, but many other issues too. There were few secrets amongst them.
Academically, in fifty years, the cause of the tears remains the same – almost.
Unlike me, none of them have been locked, alone, at night, in the computing lab – not yet anyway. It took me so long to do my assignment, that I fell asleep, and the security guard missed seeing my gaunt, pale body slumped over my textbooks next to the whirring machine that was still computing the answers to my problem. Laptops were not available back then!
Unlike me, during the day, I was shunned from using the computer lab because the bully boys said my perfume was upsetting the computers! No, I wasn’t upsetting robots in the computer lab; we were using mainframes and punched cards, and then Telex and teleprinters with encoded paper tape (the forerunners of email and communication technologies)! These were phased out, of course, in the 1980s, but still operational today. The mainframe (known as the ‘big iron’) became obsolete in the 1990s when personal computers were introduced.
Like me, I complained fifty years ago that computers were slow – it is the same complaint by the students today.
And so, on World Mental Health Day on 10 October, we laughed about the old and the new, the different and the same, the lecturers and the classmates, the number of females and the number of males, the high demand for computing and IT jobs and the competition to get any work at all.
Making my peace with World Mental Health Day 2023 in Cambodia, I learned the following:
- To honour ancestors
- To celebrate and listen to ancestors during the Pchum Ben Festival
- To honour the past, live in the present, and plan for the future
- To break the silence surrounding mental health issues
- To give youth a platform to speak loudly about their opinions
- To engage communities and families in promoting well-being and good mental health
- To laugh with others
- To bridge the generational divide
- To bridge any divide