December 7, 2022

Cambodia’s leading social psychologist wins EUR 67,000 prize from Ramboll Foundation

Thearom Ret of Royal University of Phnom Penh is the 2022 winner of the Flemming Bligaard Award for his research in mental health in post-conflict cities in south-east Asia.

The eighth billion person was born recently, likely in Asia, which is home to nearly 60% of the world’s population, and likely in a city, where more than half of all people live today. Life in cities is not always happy but Thearom Ret is working to change that. He is investigating how the social and cultural environment can be either a barrier or a resource to people dealing with their mental health. His research, conducted in Cambodia's capital city Phnom Penh, explores social norms, value systems, quality of life, social integration and individuals' past traumas – with the aim of helping people live better lives. “There is little English or foreign language research on the issue of mental health in post conflict Cambodia. I want to fill that gap and contribute with insights and knowledge in this field,” says Thearom Ret, lecturer in social psychology at Royal University of Phnom Penh.
“Phnom Penh provides a clear case for how trauma affects negatively in issues such as parenting, how people live with trauma and how we can identify potential resources - social cultural, environmental – in a city, and apply them to a post-conflict situation,” he adds. The award includes a EUR 67,000 prize to support Thearom Ret’s future research. “Mental health often takes a back seat to people’s immediate needs, especially in emerging economies where economic growth is a priority,” says Robert Arpe, Chairman of the Ramboll Foundation. “So, we are delighted to support this ground-breaking research that explores the relationships between a city's built-environment and the mental health of its citizens, helping put mental wellbeing at the heart of the social sustainability agenda.”
Unlocking barriers to better mental health
Early-career researchers from a range of disciplines and backgrounds were invited to apply for the 2022 Flemming Bligaard Award. The aim was to address the complexity and diversity in urban mental health issues, and encourage research outcomes that are applicable, replicable, and scalable in diverse urban environments.
“My research focuses on how the social culture and environment could be a barrier or a resource to have people dealing with their mental health. We will be looking at social norms, the system of values, the quality of life, social integration and their past traumas,” explains Thearom Ret. The research aims to develop standard measurements for how people maintain a sense of meaning in their lives and ultimately enable a better quality of life in post-conflict urban spaces. Phnom Penh is the location for fieldwork, reflecting the city’s recent post-conflict history and the research will be scaled to other cities in Cambodia such as Siem Reap. Further, the research will include an international comparative element to instigate how to make the findings globally applicable to other post-conflict urban environments, including those affected by ongoing or recent conflicts. The research also addresses knowledge gaps and misconceptions about mental health in Cambodia.
Better prepared for climate impact
Improved quality of life inevitably needs to encompass resilience to climate impacts. Cambodia, like other countries in south-east Asia, will be impacted by a warming global climate. Cambodians will have to be prepared for these changes – and better mental health can help them prepare.
“People with unresolved or hidden trauma may find it difficult to understand how they might actually be impacted by climate risks,” Thearom Ret explains. The rainy season, for instance, can trigger flooding which in turn could trigger traumatic memories of the country’s civil war, and impact people’s survival mechanisms. The research aims to investigate the link between risk perception and how people reconstruct society, and eventually “encourage people to behave more rationally to the situation facing them,” he adds.
About the winner
As a child in rural Cambodia, Thearom Ret witnessed the influence of conflict, and his early memories include having to stay at home from school as the Khmer Rouge was disrupting everyday life in his home province Battambang. When he moved to Phnom Penh with his parents, he could see the effect that the conflict had on people around him. This inspired him to choose his field of research. Today, Thearom Ret is Cambodia’s first and only social psychologist, holding positions at several universities. He also works with policymakers in Cambodia to promote mental health and community healing on a broader level.
About the Award
The Flemming Bligaard Award, named in honour of former Ramboll CEO and chairman of the Ramboll Foundation, is given annually to an early career academic, whose work has made an outstanding contribution to sustainable development. The award runs for a three-year period, 2020-2022. This year marks the final year of the award.
The 2021 award was given to Anne Lyck Smitshuysen for her work demonstrating how to increase the size of the cells used to produce green hydrogen, helping cut costs and increase scale of production, for the benefit of the green energy transition. In 2020, the inaugural award was given to UK-based architect and researcher Colin Rose for his work on cross-laminated secondary timber to replace concrete in the building industry, thereby reducing embodied carbon and enhancing circularity.
Mental health in Cambodia
  • The Cambodian population suffered severely under the Khmer Rouge which ruled the country in 1975-1979. In that time, more than 2 million people out of a population of 7.8 million were killed in what is known as the Cambodian Genocide.
  • Today, a large portion of the adult population of Cambodia suffers the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge, which impacts mental well-being.
  • Mental health is defined a priority in the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Globally, city dwellers have an almost 40% higher risk of depression, are over 20% more anxious, and are more lonely, isolated, and stressed than rural populations, according to The Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health.