Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Psychosocial Adjustment of Cambodian Refugee Women: Implications for Mental Health Counseling

Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Psychosocial Adjustment of Cambodian Refugee Women: Implications for Mental Health Counseling

Article excerpt

This paper examines the psychosocial adjustment issues encountered by Cambodian refugee women. A discussion on premigration and postmigration challenges is presented as well as a discussion on how premigration trauma experiences impact postmigration adjustment. Implications for multicultural counseling are discussed and recommendations for mental health counselors are presented.

There are more than 26 million refugees worldwide (United Nations, 1995) with over 80% of the adult refugee population being women (Refugee Women in Development, 1990). The United States is one of the Western countries that has refugee resettlement policies and receives large numbers of refugees from different countries. Approximately 3,000 immigrants and refugees arrive daily (Aponte & Crouch, 2000), resulting in almost 10% of the U.S. population being refugees (Balian, 1997).

In 1980, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees designated refugee women as a high-risk group for developing serious psychological problems due to their premigration war experiences of rape and sexual violence (Refugee Women in Development, 1990). In the resettlement country refugee women not only have to cope with their premigration traumas, but also they encounter significant challenges in postmigration adjustment. Refugee women play a crucial role in the lives of family members; what affects the women directly impacts their families. With continuing wars, conflicts, and natural disasters, it is clear that the United States will maintain a major role in refugee resettlement. It is, therefore, critical that mental health professionals become aware and understand the unique experiences of this group, so they can be effective in assisting refugee women and their families towards successful adjustment.

Although the article focuses on Cambodian refugee women, all refugee women tend to experience similar challenges given their gender and status as refugees. The article begins with a brief discussion of the premigration history and trauma of Cambodian refugee women, followed by a presentation of the postmigration challenges, including an examination of psychological distress and help-seeking behavior. Finally, implications and recommendation for culturally responsive mental health counseling are discussed.


Since the United States left Vietnam in 1975, more than 1.5 million Southeast Asian refugees (e.g., Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong) have sought refuge in the United States (Chung, Bemak, & Okazaki, 1997). Almost half (44%) of this population are women (U.S. Committee for Refugees, 1988). Similar to other refugee women, Southeast Asian refugee women have been categorized as a high-risk group for developing serious mental health problems due to their premigration traumatic experiences (Cole, Espin, & Rothblum, 1992; Mollica & Lavelle, 1988; Rumbaut, 1990). These traumatic experiences occurred during three periods of premigration: the war and genocide, the escape process, and the refugee camp experience (Mollica & Lavelle, 1988). Many refugee women experienced multiple traumas including physical and psychological torture.

Cambodian women specifically have been found to be at greater risk for developing serious mental health problems due to their experiences during the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge government (Mollica, Lavelle, & Khoun, 1985). Pol Pot was a dictator who orchestrated mass violence, atrocities, and genocide on the Cambodian people during his regime (1975-1979). It is estimated that 1 to 3 million of Cambodia's 7 million died from either execution, starvation, or illness, resulting in the virtual extermination of Cambodian people and culture (Kinzie & Leung, 1989; White, 1982). Those who survived the executions were placed into labor camps and collective farms and forced to work 18 to 20 hours each day while living on only one-half cup of watery rice per day (Szymusiak, 1986). …

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