As Phnom Penh gears up to welcome the first creative arts therapy and wellbeing conference this month, AsiaLIFE goes behind the scenes to find out more about the event and its aims.

“I find again and again that the people who are least cared for are those who care for others,” says Carrie Herbert, cofounder of Ragamuffin, which specialises in creative arts therapy.

Having spent 15 years working in the Kingdom to train and deliver creative art therapy programmes, Ragamuffin Cambodia has teamed up with Partners for Social Justice (PSJ) to create the country’s first Creative Arts Therapy and Wellbeing conference.

Funded and sponsored by Naropa University, the aim of the three-day event is to explore how to provide holistic and effective care for those who support others in trauma and crisis.

Featuring 47 presenters from more than 12 countries, the ground-breaking conference aims to bring together practitioners and students working in mental health, social work, education, arts in health and the caring professions.

“The main aim is to really consider the questions of how do we care for those who care for others?” says Herbert. “It’s for health care professionals, care givers, teachers, counsellors; anyone who cares for people. They are inevitably impacted by this high level of care.”

The jam-packed agenda takes in a series of workshops and seminars, with creative examples of therapy being presented. This includes a group from India who carry out music therapy with women working in red light districts.

A group from Singapore will also show how they use art therapy with children in residential care, while an organisation from Cambodia will present their work delivering adventure therapy to adolescent waste pickers.

Talks will also look at issues such as grief, suicide, how caregivers need to care for themselves, healing and self-care. An opening ceremony will feature a specially-commissioned dance by Amrita Performing Arts and music from The Upside.

“These particular issues aren’t just issues for Cambodia, but are felt across the world,” says Herbert, adding it is hoped the conference will become an annual event, travelling to other parts of the world. “We’re excited that people are bringing their best practices to Cambodia and sharing their experiences.”

Years in the making, the seed was first planted for the conference when PSJ – the most recent iteration of what began in 2011 as Naropa Community Art Studio – International (NSAC-I) – started bringing art therapy students to Cambodia to work with agencies that rehabilitated girls rescued from the sex trafficking industry. 

The project ran for three years, working with several organisations already established in Cambodia, including Lotus Outreach, Transitions Global in Phnom Penh, Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center in Banteay Meanchey province, Anjali House in Siem Reap, and Women’s Handicraft and Development Association (WHADA) in Kep.

During their travels across the country, they were introduced to Arn Chorn Pond, of Cambodia Living Arts, Ragamuffin’s Herbert and Helen Sworn, of Chab Dai. 

“It was because of our affiliation with these folks that we came to believe our mission of bringing art therapy to women and children survivors of domestic violence and sex trafficking was much bigger, and the people who were on the ground and did the work every day had much to offer us,” says Sue Wallingford, of Naropa University and PSJ.

“As well, we became acutely aware of the need for self-care amongst the clinicians who work with this population day to day. The vicarious trauma Cambodians sustain from working with their clients, combined with the historical trauma endemic to the Cambodian people, makes for an extremely vulnerable work situation. So, caring for the caregiver became front and centre of our work.”

In response to this need, the conference – entitled Nourish Wellbeing – was born.

“[It] is the first step in answering this need,” adds Wallington. “As nurse Linda Edgar says, “We are two halves to a whole, and until we take good care of ourselves we can be no benefit to others”.”

The conference runs from Jan. 16 to 18 at Himawari hotel in Phnom Penh. Registration is now open at nourishwellbeing.asia, with a number of bursary scholarships available.