Hope for Trauma Survivors in Testimony Therapy

“These days, I am not doing so well. I get a headache, feel dizzy and have a fever each time the events of those days—especially what happened in that detention center—come to mind. When I am alone, I often cry.”

These are the words of 62-year-old Chan Phay, who, unlike about 2 million fellow Cambodians, survived the Pol Pot regime. Yet decades on, she still bears the mental scars of her suffering during those years of horror.

According to an interview she gave to the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) in 2013, after her husband was “disappeared,” she was forced to marry a Khmer Rouge cadre, sexually abused and brutally tortured.

Ms. Phay is one of hundreds of people who have turned to TPO for treatment of conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety resulting from their experiences under the Khmer Rouge.

Since 2007, the organization has been using a technique known as Testimonial Therapy—which has been adapted to take into account cultural factors in Cambodia—to treat these often-debilitating mental health conditions.

On Friday, TPO released the results of a preliminary study into the process, which showed a reduction in PTSD, anxiety, depression and baksbat (or broken courage) symptoms. The percentage of PTSD sufferers in the group studied dropped from 81 to 50 percent, while the number with depression and anxiety fell from 85 percent to 75 percent.

According to TPO, the therapy involves trauma survivors discussing their experiences with a counselor and then converting their painful memories into a written document that is later read aloud by monks at a Buddhist ceremony meant to destigmatize survivors and restore their dignity, as well as to pay respects to their deceased ancestors.

Researcher Sopheap Taing presented the findings of the study at an event held at the Sunway Hotel in Phnom Penh on Friday.

“Survivors of severe trauma need more than [the] biomedical model of treatment,” Ms. Taing said. “They need truth, justice, compassion and acknowledgement. Thus TT [Testimonial Therapy] provides an opportunity to have their stories acknowledged and the opportunity for them to share their stories to the world.”

“There is a strong trend [to] suggest that TT is effective in reducing trauma symptoms in the current sample and that the culturally adapted TT may be considered to be one of the psychosocial intervention models for treating trauma survivors in Cambodia,” she said.

Limitations of the study, she added, included the short-term nature of the treatment, the poor health of some participants and demands made by some for physical health services and money.

But for some, at least, the therapy is having an effect.

“When it comes to our suffering,” says one patient in the study, “testimonial therapy does mean taking the thorn out from our heart.”

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