A community wellness program is demonstrating the benefits of culturally sensitive mental health care for Cambodian Americans, a group that has struggled to benefit from mainstream services.
Thanks to in-language workshops about mental health and culturally specific social activities, the majority of participants reported reductions in symptoms of depression and past trauma, highlighting the need for such programs in marginalized communities.
The results are significant given the lack of culturally sensitive mental health care programs for Cambodians, said community leaders with the Cambodian American Collective, an association of six organizations in Southern California that conducted the program.
“The reduction of symptoms of past trauma was really important for us,” said Susana Sngiem, executive director of United Cambodian Community of Long Beach, part of the collective. “The strategies that we provide really help our genocide survivors be able to cope with the trauma that they experience.”
Cambodians began migrating to the United States en masse in the 1970s and 1980s after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, under which more than 2 million people died. A 2015 study in the journal Psychiatric Services found that 97 percent of its participants — all of whom had lived in Cambodia at some point during the regime — met criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. The rate surpasses those of the U.S. population as a whole (about 3.5 percent) and of U.S. veterans (12 percent to 30 percent).
The program has four prongs: outreach and engagement to reduce the stigma of mental health issues in the Cambodian community; workshops to educate community members about topics like mental and physical wellness, signs of mental illness and how to cope with stress; case management to provide referrals needed for health and social services; and social support activities, such as Cambodian New Year celebrations, temple visits, water blessings for healing and positive energy, and potlucks.
Sngiem, of United Cambodian Community of Long Beach, said she hopes the practices can be implemented in other Cambodian communities throughout the country.
“Our hope is that with the data we’re collecting that we can show evidence that these social activities are really important to the mental health work in the Cambodian community,” she said.
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