Dr. Chhim Sotheara is soon to be known as a Cambodian recipient of Asia’s Nobel Peace Prize winner as he prepares to step on stage to be awarded the larger-than-life achievement in November at Ramon Magsaysay Center in Manila, the Philippines.
Once leaving the stage at the award ceremony, Dr. Sotheara will prepare to retire next year from his decades-long profession healing his countrymen’s unique trauma, baksbat. He will also step down from his role as director of Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO), which provides mental health care and support in Cambodia.
According to one of his professors, Dr. Sotheara is probably the first Cambodian psychiatrist with a PhD – and that is just one of many accolades he has collected during his profession.
“I’m ready to retire next year,” Dr. Sotheara told Kiripost in an hour-long interview at his TPO office, which he helped build from the ground up. He noted, “I did my work. I feel exhausted. I want to have more time for my family.”
Once retired, he wants to spend more time listening and attending conferences. He will occasionally give lectures. “I will have more time for my hobbies, architectural drawing and traveling,” he said with quiet excitement.
Studies, work, and awards
At the age of seven, Dr. Sotheara was still a boy when the Khmer Rouge took control of the country. When the war was over, he was able to return to school. And the young man harbored a dream. He wanted to be an architect.
“The Khmer Rouge changed my dream,” he often says.
Despite wanting to be an architect, his mother had other ideas and urged him to be a doctor instead. He agreed and in 1986, he was accepted to study at the University of Health Sciences in Phnom Penh.
“My mother said to me that I must study medicine, so at least I could always help the family and others. So, I enrolled in medical school to study Doctor of Medicine.”
In 1975, before Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge, the entire nation had just two psychiatrists running a single 800-bed psychiatric hospital with a patient population of approximately 2,000, Sarah J. Parry and Ewan Wilkinson wrote in an overview about mental health services in Cambodia for the National Library of Medicine.
“During the Khmer Rouge period, the mental health services in their entirety were destroyed, leaving no psychiatrists or other trained mental health professionals.” About 40 doctors survived in the whole country, out of 400 doctors at that time.
In 1992, after graduating as a doctor, Dr. Sotheara worked as a surgeon in Cheom Ksan, a small town in Preah Vihear Province.
In 1999, Dr. Sotheara completed his Master’s in Psychological Medicine at the University of New South Wales. In 2008, he went on to earn his Doctoral Studies at Monash University in Victoria. Both were awarded by an Australian government scholarship.
His turning point was in 1994, when he enrolled in a training program offered by Norway’s University of Oslo to nurture the first batch of 10 psychiatrists in Cambodia. This later became his impact work, among many achievements, at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
Playing his “part as an expert witness during the Khmer Rouge Tribunal investigations”, is a highlight recognized as a recipient of Asia’s premier prize and highest honor.
Without that first-of-its-kind training in the field in a nation recovering from war and without his personal passion to study in this subject matter, Dr. Sotheara may have only been able to heal physical wounds and not the soul and mind.
While the Western world considers post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a mental health issue among Khmer Rouge survivors, Dr. Sotheara argues that instead, it is “broken courage”. This, he believes, is one of the ultimate reasons he has been awarded Asia's Nobel Prize.
This argument is based on his more than two decades of work with the community and studies. He said that, unlike US soldiers who left the Vietnam war with scars of PTSD, the case of Cambodian survivors from the internal armed conflict is different.
He noted that the “broken courage,” is his personal discovery, in which he wrote his PhD thesis research into “Baksbat (broken courage): a trauma-based cultural syndrome in Cambodia,” published in 2013. The concept of broken courage dates back to the collapse of Angkor and the Khmer Empire in 1413, Dr. Sotheara wrote in his research paper.
While his “calm courage in surmounting deep trauma to become his people’s healer” captures the attention of the Ramon Magsaysay Award board of trustees, his “daily devotion to the best of one’s profession can itself be a form of greatness” is also remarkable.
Speaking of his most recent award, Dr. Sotheara thanked those around him.
“It’s a collective effort with the TPO team. It’s for my family, my mother, and my wife,” said Dr. Sotheara, who is married with two grown-up children.
This Ramon Magsaysay Award is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement, Dr. Sotheara told Kiripost. “I’m so excited. I’m just an ordinary citizen. I work in the community, at the grassroots level. The prize makes me proud. It’s also pride for other Cambodians.”
Over the years, Dr. Sotheara has given the prizes he has earned to TPO so the organization can implement much-needed projects. This includes Operation Unchain, which helps rural Cambodians who are literally chained up. Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni donated $5,000 to the project.
Dr. Sotheara thought his dream to change Phnom Penh’s cityscape with skyscrapers would remain just a dream, before his retirement he built TPO and the manpower needed to help heal a nation long-torn by civil war. The TPO office building in Sen Sok district is probably among a few owned, not rented, by a non-profit organization.
“I helped build the TPO office building as if it’s my home.”
The TPO director took part in the construction process, even with a limited budget, to complete it. He said this is probably one of the few works to stem from his childhood dream of being an architect. On the 20-year anniversary and inauguration of the building, he welcomed King Sihamoni to witness one of his final, grand works.
Talking to Kiripost about his retirement, he said he prides himself on a long-term, sustainable organization with a mission “to improve the well-being of Cambodian people with psychosocial and mental health problems, thereby increasing their ability to function effectively within their work, family, and communities.” Dr. Sotheara sees himself as both a war survivor and victim.
In 2012, Sotheara also received the Leitner Center’s (New York) Annual Human Rights Award for his extraordinary work in helping to heal his nation from the terrible atrocities of the past.
Conspiracy of silence and stigma
When discussing psychological issues facing Cambodians, he said the conspiracy of silence is no longer on the top of his list of concerns. He said when more people understand psychological problems, this will help to stamp out stigmatization.
He gave an example when he was studying psychology back in the early 1990s. Psychology students at the time were called “Crazy Doctors”. “Nobody wanted to even sit close to them”, said Dr. Sotheara.
Economic impact by mental health
While there is no latest data to show the economic impact in Cambodia caused by mental health, World Economic Forum researchers calculated that “a broadly defined set of mental health conditions cost the world economy approximately $2.5 trillion in 2010, combining lost economic productivity ($1.7 trillion) and direct costs of care ($0.8 trillion).
This total cost is projected to rise to $6 trillion by 2030 alongside increased social costs.
In Asia, problems arising from poor mental health are the second largest contributor to years lost to disability. “Studies have also found that activities related to smartphones and digital media are linked to less happiness, and those not involving technology are linked to more happiness,” Gerard Bodeker wrote in a background paper, Mental Wellness in Asia.
In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) said, “Increased investment is required on all fronts: for mental health awareness to increase understanding and reduce stigma; for efforts to increase access to quality mental health care and effective treatments; and for research to identify new treatments and improve existing treatments for all mental disorders.”
In Cambodia, 45 percent of surveyed adolescents (youth aged 15 to 19) said they were worried about their safety during the pandemic, and 16 percent of adolescents said they felt more anxious or depressed since the crisis began, according to UNICEF.
Three others on this year’s roster of distinguished Ramon Magsaysay laureates hail from Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Before Dr. Sotheara, Cambodian recipients of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award, established in 1957, are Chhang Youk for preserving the historical memory of Cambodia's Killing Fields for healing and justice; Yang Saing Koma, a Cambodian agronomist who advocated sustainable agriculture; and Ek Sonn Chan, Cambodia's hard-working engineer leader, who provided clean water for Phnom Penh's residents from a decrepit water system.