Dr. Chhim Sotheara, known as the “People’s Healer”, was awarded the 64th Ramon Magsaysay Awards 2022 in the Philippines this week for his work as a mental health advocate in Cambodia, and he has pledged to pump the prize money back into the mental initiative his organization runs.
Dr. Sotheara said he is still in disbelief that he is the recipient of Asia’s most prestigious prize, the Ramon Magsaysay Award.
He added in a speech at the award ceremony on November 30 that the award is special, both professionally and personally, as it is an acknowledgement of his work and the organization he runs, Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO).
For more than a decade, TPO has carried out work to alleviate the suffering of people from trauma and mental health issues.
At the award ceremony, which was screened live on Facebook, Dr. Sotheara said he was born into a family of architects and his dream was to follow in their footsteps and build skyscrapers.
“My dreams and plans were shattered by the Khmer Rouge,” he said, adding he decided to become an obedient son and later work as a young doctor in rural areas, where he learnt people were in need of mental health services.
He said that TPO has provided mental health services to hundreds of thousands of people, and the stigma of mental health has been reduced. He noted that more and more people today seek mental health care.
Dr. Sotheara added that he plans to donate all of his prize money to TPO’s Operation Unchain to treat more patients who are in need of mental health.
“I will continue to implement the project until there are no more patients chained in the country,” he said.
A total of 43 TPO staff were also in Manila to celebrate the award with Dr. Sotheara.
In a separate panel discussion on Thursday, Dr. Sotheara said that the award is extraordinary, reflecting his extraordinary work.
“I can say I should be proud of it because mental health in Cambodia is a taboo, no one wants to talk about it,” he said, adding that now psychiatrists work in clinics, see patients in hospitals and they dress well saying that he was the only one that works in the community.
“So I feel proud especially when I see the community people start to be aware of the problem and seek help. So, at one point that makes me feel that community mental health is important. When I did the research in the remote rural areas, a person came towards me, greeted me and she said she’s my patient and that it was very far away.”
Dr. Sotheara said that his hobby had changed at different ages. When he was young, he liked to play sports, but at this age, he likes to do design, learn to sketch up and design buildings.
"You know my dream is to become an architect so sometimes I spend time to draw my own house or to draw something I plan to do and I can say it is very similar to architect drawing but I never go to architect school."
He added that he also likes technology and likes to learn new things. For example, he said that he had seen a new technology that is developed to treat depression and anxiety, especially those who are resistant to medication.
Dr Sotheara said that in terms of challenges, there are so many challenges in the mental health work in Cambodia, with a hundred doctors but the quality is not that good compared to the Philippines. “But we keep learning by doing it,” he said.
He added that a lot of challenges such as lack of good medication, purchasing power, and people totally depend on the government whereas the government could not invest into mental health.
The lack of awareness of mental health in public in general is difficult and when Covid started, he said that a lot of problems came all together, all in one and that it was a challenge that they needed to change the way they work.
“We cannot go out into the community to work but we work through online so that's why from that time, we set up an online hotline so our staff work from 8am to 12 midnight to respond to the needs of people who may be affected by Covid 19.”
Dr. Sotheara also spoke about how his achievement is simple and that 20 years ago, when he sat next to people, they started to express anxiety because they felt that he maybe was evaluating them, because they were afraid that staying near a psychiatrist, psychiatrist might understand them, understand their mind, and they wanted to move away.
“And now when I say I am a psychiatrist, they say oh that's very important, you have a very important role, can I have your phone number please?” he said as the crowd cheerily laughed.
He said that he had also received some appointment requests also while in the Philippines accepting the award.
The award is groundbreaking as people begin to be aware more about mental health through his work and the award. “So this is an achievement,” he added.
He said he has a lot of youthful patients and a lot of them are depressed, disappointed, demoralized, because they grow up in the environment where they see other people are materialistic with a lot of good things, go to good schools, so they are depressed and they feel they are not successful.
“I told them that I just feel success in the last few years,” Dr. Sotheara said.
He said that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is his hero.
“Why? Because during his 10 years in office, he has three or four children while in office, meaning that he was not only focusing on his work but his family, his children so I think that came to my mind a long time ago that he is the person who balances between work and family.”