More than 1.7 million people — nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population — were killed by execution, disease, starvation and overwork under the Khmer Rouge’s brutal rule from 1975 to 1979. Some 40 years later, the resulting trauma permeates much of the country’s culture. Cognitive science major Jenna Pastorini ’17 is attempting to better understand subsequent Cambodian mental health issues as part of a cross-cultural study exploring beliefs surrounding post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The study is a perfect dovetail for Pastorini. Cognitive science students must write a senior thesis incorporating two of the program’s six academic pillars. As part of her project, Pastorini spent four weeks this past June in Siem Reap and Phnom Penhto gain an understanding of the context and issues surrounding trauma in Cambodia’s cultural context. Two Lehigh faculty serve as Pastorini’s mentors. Jessecae Marsh, assistant professor of psychology, pursues research in the beliefs surrounding mental health issues. Cambodian-born Sothy Eng, professor of practice in the College of Education, provided Pastorini with a variety of connections across the nation, such as at Royal University of Phnom Penh.
“I met with [Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs)] to develop a baseline working in Cambodia. You have to understand how interwoven everything is. I needed to learn about the government, the policies and the ground-level realities of genocide. I needed to really get a grasp on these factors to begin to understand how they impact mental health.”
Pastorini has previous experience with Khmer culture. She toured the kingdom in the winter of 2015 as part of Lehigh’s Global Citizenship program where she met with members of Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO), an NGO. TPO is Cambodia’s leading NGO in the field of mental health care and psychosocial support. There she learned of baksbat. Similar to PTSD, people with baksbat experience anxiety and depression, yet the disorder possesses enough features to be recognized as a formal cultural trauma syndrome distinct from PTSD.
"... I needed to learn about the government, the policies and the ground-level realities of genocide. I needed to really get a grasp on these factors to begin to understand how they impact mental health.”
- Acumen Fall 2016