By: Corey Hashida
Steinberg Institute Senior Advocate
Working in California, one can lose sight of the fact that many aspects of mental health policy here are unique to California, such as our system of split responsibilities between the state and counties for providing care. Unfortunately, many of us who work in this field don’t spend that much time learning about mental health policies in other countries or insights we could glean from the perspectives the people there have.
So, imagine my excitement when I traveled to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Cambodia in April as part of an exchange program through the U.S. Department of State Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn, and share insights from California with Cambodians who are working to improve mental health in their home country.
I heard from young Cambodian adults who shared their dreams for what a thriving Cambodia would look like. Although there are real policy issues that impede mental health in Cambodia (such as a workforce shortage and high costs of care), I was struck by the fact that many see stigma as the primary challenge for mental health in Cambodia. Just speaking about one’s mental health can be very hard in Cambodia. They are still suffering from the genocide that killed two million Cambodians in the 1970s. Intergenerational trauma, and a societal reluctance to speak openly about it, presents a uniquely Cambodian challenge to raising awareness of mental health. I was inspired by the people who shared, and despite very real challenges facing their country, their dedication and perseverance left me feeling optimistic about the future of Cambodia.
The centerpiece of my visit was the “Thrive Conference,” Cambodia’s first-ever conference focusing on the importance of mental health in Cambodian society. Attended by policymakers, health professionals and advocates, the goal of the conference was to raise awareness of mental health as a key issue facing the country. In my presentation to the conference, I shared background on California’s mental health landscape, how advocates influence the state’s mental health policies, and lessons learned from difficult challenges that persist in the system. Some of these challenges are shared within Cambodia’s mental health systems , such as the need for proper oversight and accountability.
This trip was an unforgettable experience. I won’t forget the people I met, whose insights I’ll keep with me as I work to ensure California can thrive as well.