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Days after Adam Lanza shot up Sandy Hook Elementary School, gun control laws are once again the subject of hot debate. But what about mental-health policy? What if mental health care was as easy to get as, say, a gun? GlobalPost takes a trip around the globe to see how psychological issues are treated outside America. Here's a sampling of some of our best reporting on the subject from the last two years.
One of the worst mental health crises in Asia gets precious little attention and money.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Psychiatrist Sotheara Chhim has given more thought than most to the mental burdens carried by Cambodians.
Pointing to a glass of water on his table, he describes how the legacy of decades marred by war, genocide and enduring poverty still help push so many here over the edge.
“I think every Cambodian is like a glass carrying some water, meaning the traumatic past,” he said. “If more water is put in, the glass fills easier than an empty glass.”
In many ways Cambodia appears to have turned a corner from its dark past, with big cities booming and millions of foreign tourists visiting the country every year. A flood of foreign aid has even seen scourges such as HIV/AIDS finally under control and uneven progress made against poverty.
Cambodia, however, labors under the burden of one of Asia’s worst mental health crises, driven by the ghosts of its history and the stresses of living in a rapidly changing but still desperately deprived country. And unlike so many other problems in a country flooded with foreign NGOs and international organizations, the issue gets little outside attention, and precious little money.
Comprehensive figures are thin on the ground, but those that are out there point to a grim situation. A study by the Holland-based Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) found 35 percent of Cambodians suffer from some kind of psychiatric problem and 45 percent suffer from “psychosocial problems” — a broad term embracing everything from grief to stunted emotional development.
At the same time, the country suffers from a dearth of treatment. Only 1 percent of the government’s health budget goes to mental health and only 0.1 percent of the population access mental health services every year.
Cambodia is home to 14 million people, 5 million of whom are survivors of the 1975-1979 reign of the Khmer Rouge, in which up to 2 million died. For that whole population, there are only about 40 psychiatrists, and only around 10 of them outside of the capital.
The results can be seen in Cambodia’s impoverished villages, where the severely mentally ill are often found tethered and caged in hidden recesses beneath stilt houses.
Kevin Conroy, an American Catholic priest who teaches psychology at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, carries in his cell phone the photo of one such woman, a 45-year-old recently found north of the capital.
“It was the smell of urine, feces, all that stuff. That’s the part you don’t get from the picture, it’s the smell that’s there,” Conroy said.