Counseling in Cambodia: Healing a History of Trauma

The Cambodian church has grown exponentially in the past few decades: from only a few thousand Christians in the early 1990s to more than 150,000 today. God is at work, but the nation’s wounds are deep. A Christian counseling worker shares her perspective on Cambodia’s mental health needs.

Her hair always hung in her face. If you could see her eyes, they would look distant, even vacant. She didn’t spend time with the other students at the university. But there was one person with whom she shared her thoughts and heart—a Christian counseling student. Once a week, he sat and simply listened. Over time, the young woman began to wear her hair back. Life entered her eyes. She started eating with the other students and her laugh echoed across the room. All because, maybe for the first time in her life, someone listened.

The counseling student is a pupil of Mary Haag, an OMF worker who has spent 13 years sharing God’s love with Cambodians. Through individual counseling; teaching courses at two Bible schools, a Christian-based hospital and the government university; and developing basic counseling material, Mary’s work has been a vital resource in a nation where mental health resources are limited.

In Cambodia, seeking counseling comes with a stigma. “You’re either normal, or you’re crazy,” Mary says about Cambodians’ frequently dichotomous view of mental health. “They know they have a lot of emotional issues, they just don’t know how to resolve them.”

This shared emotional trauma likely traces back to the Khmer Rouge, whose reign of terror resulted in 21 percent of Cambodians losing their lives, according to the Yale University Genocide Studies Program. Many Cambodians today, if not bludgeoned first-hand by the regime, inherited deep-seated fear and mistrust. Their trauma has manifested in anxiety, depression and addiction, which influences the way Cambodians parent.

“Many Cambodians think the only way to control their children is to make them scared, or to yell at them and shame them,” Mary says.

In addition to a fear-based approach to relationships, many Cambodians worship this way, too. Cambodia is 83 percent Buddhist, but spirit worship pervades religious practices. Sacrifices are made to appease the spirits who, if not satisfied, are believed to inflict harm or withhold blessing.

Mary wants to see Cambodians living fearlessly under the protection of the Good Shepherd, who fights on their behalf. This means equipping Christian counseling students with basic resources. She has written a Basic Course for Christian Workers in Counseling textbook with help from Cambodian students and teachers.

“I tell my students that if they would write down what they’re learning, they could they could make such valuable contributions to Cambodia because their country has so few resources,” she says.

At Mercy Medical Center (MMC), a Christian-based hospital in Phnom Penh where Mary works, doctors hand out prescriptions for counseling. Patients who travel from remote, rural areas are given specially-tailored counseling services. MMC doctors recognize that the mind, not just the body, needs healing for a person to reach full health.

Even as Mary is encouraged by her students and colleagues, she can’t help but notice those whom even the church has neglected. People struggling with severe mental illnesses are considered beyond help. In a 2012 report published by the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, between 10 and 40 percent of those suffering from severe mental disabilities in Cambodia are bound or locked up in cages.[1]

“There are no communities to accept them and show them God’s love,” she says.

Mary observes that to walk with Cambodians through trauma, addiction, fear, or mental illness requires time. Long-term workers are a huge need. “You may have decades of experience,” she says, “but coming in for a short period of time to counsel people in English won’t help most people in Cambodia.”

As God, our Great Healer, continues the good work he has started in Cambodia, pray for more long-term workers to respond to his call. Ask God to mend broken families, break strongholds of fear and bring the outcasts into loving communities. Pray also that Cambodian students and pastors would be shaped as skillful instruments of healing.

Is God asking you to step out in faith and make a long-term investment in Cambodia? Check out our opportunities in Cambodia.

[1] Daniel McLaughlin and Elisabeth Wickeri, Leitner Center for International Law and Justice. Special Report: Mental Health and Human Rights in Cambodia. New York: Fordham Law School, 2012.

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