CAMBODIA: Why Cambodians never get “depressed”

February 13, 2015

News Type:  Weekly Spark, Weekly Spark News


While an American might describe a state of “depression,” a Cambodian with the same symptoms might instead say “the water in my heart has fallen.” Bouts of anxiety, which are often accompanied by traumatic flashbacks among Cambodians who survived genocide under the Khmer Rouge, are described as “wind attacks,” or as a spinning feeling in the heart. Depression and anxiety exist in every culture, and the World Health Organization is calling for increased access to mental health care around the world, but psychiatrists note that there are important cultural differences to consider in addressing these problems. Devon Hinton, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, explained the importance of working within patients’ frame of reference when offering treatment.  “You’ve got to figure out what the core signs are for different people,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s just a matter of being an interested listener.” Other psychiatrists have also learned to tailor their services to the cultural standards of the groups they serve, often starting by giving patients a drawing of a human body and asking patients to map out their symptoms.

Spark Extra! Read about a program to develop culturally sensitive mental health services for international refugees in Washington State.