Having witnessed conflict as a child in rural Cambodia and the daily disruption to life by the Khmer Rouge, Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) social psychology lecturer, Thearom Ret, is aware of its effects on people - even in the capital city.
Inspired by this revelation, Battambang-born Thearom set about studying how social and cultural environments can be either a barrier or a resource to people dealing with their mental health.
Now, his research topic has scooped him the Flemming Bligaard Award for 2022, under Danish-based Ramboll Foundation, where he received €67,000 (approximately $71,350). This will enable him to delve into mental health in post-conflict cities in Southeast Asia.
The award, named in honour of the foundation’s former CEO and chairman, is the final in its three-year series, which began in 2022 for early-career academics whose work has made an outstanding contribution to sustainable development.
The Khmer Rouge occupation between 1975 and 1979 killed more than two million people out of a population of 7.8 million. It is now known as the Cambodian Genocide.
Today, a large portion of the adult population in Cambodia suffers the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge, which impacts mental well-being, Ramboll Foundation shared.
Quoting The Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health’s global data, it said city dwellers have an almost 40 percent higher risk of depression, are more than 20 percent more anxious, and are more lonely, isolated and stressed than rural populations.
Filling the gap
Thearom’s focus will be in Phnom Penh and scaled up to Siem Reap, where he is expected to explore social norms, value systems, quality of life, social integration and individuals' past traumas, with the aim of helping people live better lives.
Said to be Cambodia’s “first and only” social psychologist, Thearom holds positions in various universities and collaborates with policymakers to promote mental health and community on a broader scale.
The research also includes an international comparative element to initiate ways to make the findings globally applicable to other post-conflict urban environments, including those affected by ongoing or recent conflicts.
Additionally, it will address knowledge gaps and misconceptions about mental health in Cambodia.
Thearom noted that English or foreign language research on the issue of mental health in post-conflict Cambodia are limited. This formed his motivation to fill the gap and contribute with insights and knowledge in the field.
“Phnom Penh provides a clear case for how trauma affects negatively in issues such as parenting, how people live with trauma and how we can identify potential resources – social, cultural, environmental – in a city, and apply them to a post-conflict situation,” Thearom said.
Subsequently, the research aims to develop standard measurements for how people maintain a sense of meaning in their lives and ultimately enable a better quality of life in post-conflict urban spaces.
Robert Arpe, chairman of Ramboll Foundation, said mental health often “takes a back seat” to people’s immediate needs, especially in emerging economies where economic growth is a priority.
“So, we are delighted to support this ground-breaking research that explores the relationships between a city's built-environment and the mental health of its citizens, helping put mental well-being at the heart of the social sustainability agenda,” Arpe added.
As mental health might have links with climate change, Cambodians will have to be prepared for these changes. Therefore, it is pertinent to ensure better mental health to help them face the situation.
“People with unresolved or hidden trauma may find it difficult to understand how they might actually be impacted by climate risks,” Thearom said.
He cited the example of the rainy season, which can trigger flooding and, in turn, trigger traumatic memories of the country’s civil war, while impacting people’s survival mechanisms.
“The research aims to investigate the link between risk perception and how people reconstruct society, and eventually encourage people to behave more rationally to the situation facing them,” he explained.