The Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) Cambodia was established in 1995 to alleviate psychological and mental health issues in the Kingdom. Originally a Netherlands-based NGO, it has been entirely staffed and run by Cambodians since 2000. The organisation provides free counselling.

The Post sat down with Sun Solida, a psychologist at TPO Cambodia, to discuss the important work of the NGO.

What activities is TPO Cambodia working on to help Cambodians who may be suffering from mental illnesses?

TPO Cambodia has many ongoing operations which are intended to improve mental health. We focus on education campaigns – in the community and on social media – and free consultations, via phone calls and TPO’s Facebook page.

We also provide training to health workers, police officers, village chiefs, and commune chiefs. Many of them go on to train their own colleagues.

How many people has TPO provided counselling and treatment to this year, and how does it compare to last year?

From January 1 to December 30 last year, TPO saw a total of 1,180 patients. In just the first nine months of this year, we have seen 1,169 – clearly an increase over the same period in 2021.

I expect these figures to increase significantly, not just in the remaining three months of the year, but because the numbers do not include those who accessed our hotline services.

The increases may be because people are becoming more aware of our services or a positive shift in attitudes to mental health – more people may be aware that it is okay to ask for help.

The pandemic was responsible for many issues, one of which was a rise in mental health needs, whether driven by workplace or homelife pressures.

TPO’s outreach has helped the public to learn more and understand what mental illness is. How would you define mental illness?

A mental illness is similar to a physical illness, but affects our emotions, thoughts, and behavior. They can alter our beliefs and change our personality and often disrupt how we function in our relationships, both personal and professional.

There are two main types of mental illness. There are mental illnesses which should be diagnosed through counsellors and psychiatrists, and there are less specific emotional disorders, often associated with anxiety. TPO has services which can assist with both.

What are some of the factors that can trigger mental illnesses in people?

There are external and internal factors at play.

External factors are environmental, like social crises, relationship or family issues. Internal factors involve chemical changes in a person’s brain.

When our chemicals are out of balance, we may feel numb, lack motivation or even feel a reduced sense of worth. Currently, the pandemic is a serious factor – it has triggered a socio-economic crisis.

Can patients cure themselves of mental illness?

Well, individuals can learn to recognise their own symptoms, but in serious cases speaking with specialists is the best course of action.

When a person is experiencing a mental problem, sharing or talking it with someone they trust can bring them emotional relief.

On the other hand, a trained professional will help them see the issue more clearly, and can help the patient by giving them ‘tools’ they can use to cope. In more serious cases, medication can be prescribed, whether to rebalance a person’s chemicals or to ensure they are getting enough sleep.

How much understanding of mental illness do you think is present in Cambodia?

Despite the growth of people seeking our services, understanding of mental illness remains limited in the Kingdom. Many people still adhere to traditional beliefs and practices.

Most people who seek emotional support services have lived or studied abroad or have experienced mental illness in a family member.

TPO Cambodia has observed an increase in the number of younger people who are comfortable discussing mental health, particularly via social media, and sees this as a positive change.

What future plans does TPO have to help mental illness sufferers in Cambodia?

Of course our main goal is to see people living satisfactorily, with a good quality of life.

It is to this end that TPO will continue to promote and educate the public through outreach programmes. Our programmes are aimed at specific target groups, notably students and local authorities.

We will also provide training mental health training to first responders. In the past, traditional methods have been used to treat people suffering from mental illnesses. Unfortunately, this sometimes endangers the patient’s life. We want to ensure that people are safe, most of all.