A recent spate of murder-suicide and other violent crimes have prompted calls for a better understanding of mental health, and of ways for people to process negative emotions without resorting to harming themselves, or anyone else.
Modern science has much to offer in the treatment of mental health with specialists, and even Buddhist monks, calling on people to recognise it as a medical issue and seek professional help.
Psychological problems commonly affect almost everyone at some point in life, say psychologists. They can almost always be dealt with easily, through a combination of therapy and sometimes medication. Monks also offers advice, suggesting that people should cleanse their minds of evil and learn to live a simple life.
In a recent domestic violence case in Kampot province’s Angkor Chey district, a local man posted a video to social media in which he threatened to hang his 5-year-old son if his estranged wife did not return to him.
In light of this incident, district police chief Horn Bunsideth urges people who are experiencing domestic problems to remain patient and calm.
He says they should consider discussing the issue and finding a reasonable solution rather than acting rashly, as poor decision making in the heat of the moment can have serious long-term consequences.
“We want people to be patient and avoid feelings of jealousy. If they have an issue, they should discuss it rationally with their family, rather than resorting to something that may result in legal action,” he says.
He believes that most people who commit violence or suicide have never been educated with the tools they need to process their frustrations, and so lash out when confronted with something that gets on their nerves.
Venerable Yorn Seng Yeat, vice-rector of Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University, explains that in order to avoid one’s feelings becoming uncontrollable, such as through suicidal thoughts, one should train their mind and cultivate loving-kindness.
“We must understand that all life is very precious, all of those around us love their lives as much as we do our own,” he says, adding that murders and suicides are not only against the teachings of the Buddha but also bring sorrow to the families of those involved, as well as wider society.
According to the monk, psychological distress is nothing new, and is an integral part of human life. This is a natural thing that happens to just about anyone at some point in life.
According to Buddhist philosophy, a person with a mental issue must first acknowledge that he or she has a problem, and then determine what the problem is and where it originates.
Once a person finds the source of their problem, they can search for an appropriate solution.
The senior venerable monk adds that mental problems often affect the body, as the two are intertwined.
“If the mind is in pain, the body also hurts accordingly. When your thoughts are troubling you, you should discuss them with monks who understand psychotherapy, or seek counselling with a psychiatrist. It is also important to remember that if you body is sick, you should seek out medical advice, rather than relying on holy water, occultists, sacred objects or prayers for healing,” he says.
“In Buddhism, there is no instruction to pray for a cure. A true Buddhist, when one is sick, seeks medical attention. There is no blessing for healing because it brings negative effects and does not give any substantial aid. Patients should have faith in the healing powers of medical professionals,” he added.
Identify the source
Venerable Chrounh Pisey, who resides at Boeung Reang pagoda in Battambang town and province, agrees that when people are confronted with complex problems, like mental health issues, they should first work to identify the source of the problem and seek a practical solution.
If they cannot find an immediate solution, they should try to relax their minds while searching for a new compromise, or someone who can offer advice.
“It is important to accept the truth and accept the things that happen in life. People should avoid taking lives, whether their own or someone else’s, as this solves nothing,” he says.
According to Pisey, among the traditional beliefs of many Cambodians is the misconception that occultists, sacred objects and various prayers are able to solve many of life’s problems.
“We cannot depend on holy water or sacred objects to solve our problems, because we must resolve them ourselves,” he adds.
He warns that some people seek out the “help” of occultists when they are seriously ill, as they believe that pain may be caused by supernatural spirits or sorcery.
The venerable says people are free to believe whatever they want to believe, but should never be afraid to seek a medical diagnosis from a doctor and receive treatment.
“Every believer has the right to choose, but they should be careful not to abandon science. This is the scientific age, and even education now follows science,” he adds.
Trust the science
Touch Borith, director of the Best-Lab medical laboratory, supports the monk’s statements, noting that a physical examination by trained medical personnel and scientifically accurate laboratory testing are far more effective at dealing with physical illness than anything an occultist can offer. He warns that in many cases, alternative treatment can actually make things worse.
He says some Cambodians still believe that ghosts or other spirits are responsible for common health issues, and often rush to a spirit healer for help rather than visiting a medical professional.
He cites as an example muscle and joint pain – often described as some form of curse by superstitious people – a symptom that is generally caused by acidosis or arthritis.
“In order to not aggravate the condition of the patient, their relatives should take them for a medical examination so they can receive prompt treatment, rather than rushing to an occultist to break a ‘magic spell’,” he urges.
“We are living at one of the high points of human knowledge. Even if we have a simple headache, we have a lot of diagnostic techniques and treatments available. In the past, if we had a headache, it was supposed that spirits were causing it. Now we are aware that a headache may be caused by a tumour or anaemia, and is treatable,” he says.
Dangers of alternative treatment
Meth Daramoon, a psychiatrist and drug councillor at Amari Mental Clinic, explains that there are more than 200 different types of mental illness.
He notes that some of them create strange symptoms or unusual thoughts in people. He says that many superstitious people – not just in Cambodia, but across the world – believe that these symptoms and thoughts are caused by magic spirits or ghosts.
Taking a patient to an occultist can often prolong a problem, as their conditions may worsen the longer they are without correct medical treatment.
“When a patient associates a physical disease with spiritual affairs, this can have a negative effect. By the time he or she has visited a series of traditional healers, the illness may have progressed, making them harder to treat when they finally seek medical advice,” he says.
According to Daramoon, some elements of Buddhist mental education – such as medication – can also be very beneficial to the mentally ill.
He explains that three factors are generally responsible for mental illness: psychological, physical and societal.
Psychological problems can arise from stressful situations, while physical ones are generally related to abnormalities of the brain, such as tumours.
Societal factors may include conditions such as conflicts or a global pandemic.
Daramoon suggests that people are mindful of their own mental health, and that of others.
He believes that a certain lifestyle can reduce a person’s chances of suffering from mental health problems.
“Understanding how to control your anger and deal with problems constructively is crucial, as is making sure you get enough sleep, take regular exercise and enjoy a healthy diet,” he says.