A Community of Heart Profile: Sombat Tapanya



Sombat Tapanya grew up in a loving home, where people appreciated learning. His father, Sriwang, was an elementary school teacher and lived in a small province in the North of Thailand. He was known in his community and probably met his mother, Sutin, as he rode around the area by bicycle. Sombat did not know because his family did not talk about that sort of thing. What he did learn was that the warmth and affection of his family upbringing would prove to be a resource throughout the rest of his life. During his childhood, Sombat’s family did not have electricity and running water. Instead they used a hand pump to draw water from underground. His family’s home was a large wooden house on stilts with many open spaced areas for living. He noted that life was “peaceful, warm and secure” with many cousins and the families of aunts and uncles. Sombat learned to appreciate learning by example as he observed his father reading and studying as he moved up in his career. While his cousins could have as many toys as they wanted, his choices were books. Although his parents were affectionate and caring, they wanted him to have a good education. He was sent to a famous Catholic school in Chiang Mai about 70 kms from their village in third grade and had to live in a dormitory. He was a shy, introspective young boy, the youngest and smallest in every class. During the course of his studies through high school, he was lonely, often bullied, and the recipient of harsh discipline from the priests. Despite the difficulties, he continues to connect with his old school friends through their alumnae group, and over 100 are still in touch. Also, he became sensitized to the troubles of children in difficult situations and this may have motivated him to be attracted to his current type of work. When it came time to choose his major in college, psychology seemed a natural choice. He studied at Chiang Mai University as it was the only university in Thailand that offered a B.Sc. in psychology with a clinical track. At the time, psychologists were responsible only for psychological assessment of patients. He worked at Somdet Chaopraya Psychiatric Hospital in Bangkok until he received a scholarship to do his M.S. in Special Education at the Southern Connecticut State University from the World Federation for Mental Health. His horizons broadened there when he learned about another master’s program in Counseling Education with a specialization in Gestalt Therapy. He returned from Thailand two years later, completing his second Masters in 1981. When he returned to Thailand, he married and had two sons within three years. He was uncomfortable bringing them up in the crowded city of Bangkok, so he returned to Chiang Mai, in its University’s Medical School, staying there until he retired in 2011. From 1990-1996, he received a scholarship from the Canadian government called the “Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)”, and went to the University of New Brunswick to do his Ph.D. He focused on Health Psychology and did his dissertation on the adherence to medical regimens among Type 2 diabetic patients. When Sombat returned to Thailand, although his main job was to teach psychology to medical students, his interest grew in the area of child abuse and domestic violence. It was a natural segue into working in the area of child protection and later the field of trauma. He remembered discovering the work of George Albee (Vermont University) in “Primary Prevention,” during his undergraduate work and liked the idea of finding ways of preventing psychological problems and promoting mental health. Sombat’s wish was granted in the forms of Ute Sodermann and Peter Bumke, two German sociologists who had been working in Asia and South America for over 20 years, who came to visit him in Thailand because of his expertise in child abuse. They concluded that the Thai mental health community was capable of helping or rescuing abused women and children, but they needed to know what to do to help them to heal. During this time, the tsunami of 2004 struck Asia and everyone focused on the disaster. The Prime Minister refused to support the German plan so they moved the project to Indonesia instead. Sombat was introduced to EMDR therapy by Gary Quinn (Israel) as a group of Israeli EMDR practitioners came in response to the crisis. He learned more about EMDR when he went to Germany and became involved with the Mekong Project. Sombat was in the U.S. for his Counseling Masters when he first heard of EMDR therapy and he remembers how it was ridiculed. At his first training, he found it difficult because the EMDR Standard Protocol was not natural to his language. Later, he and his colleagues had to find ways to refine it to reflect Thai thinking. They were concerned about modifying too much and now the EMDR Thailand Association will be in charge of standardizing their practice based on EMDR Asia standards. They are looking forward to formal EMDR training in Thailand 2017. At the moment, they are focused on stabilization and psychoeducation concerning trauma and have trained 30-40 clinicians. They are also reaching out to the younger generation. In 2006, Ute and Peter created the Mekong Project in Indonesia, Cambodia and Myanmar. Their goals were to treat traumatized victims suffering from traumatic experiences and offer free trauma treatment and training to health care providers to teach them to work closely with patients by empathizing with their problem, identifying those who have been exposed to violence and other types of psychological distress. They are concluding the second phase now and will start the third phase of the project in mid-2017. Sombat’s work through this project has been eye opening. He has been struck by the prevalence of traumatized people in these projects and how the experience of being treated badly and humiliated is correlated to the use of violence later in life and how it sets the stage for domestic violence and intergenerational transmission of violence. Sombat is also passionate about preventing trauma from happening. In the spirit of Vincent Felitti’s Adverse Childhood Experience Study who found that one of the common causes of trauma is interpersonal violence, he has been working over the past decade with Save the Children International and the Thai Ministry of Education to eliminate physical punishment in schools and families. They are using Joan Durrant’s (University of Manitoba) work on “Positive Discipline.” He has trained 1000s of teachers and parents throughout Thailand on this subject and has worked in Laos and the Solomon Islands as well. He has used some of the principles of Aikido, a martial art in which he is a master, to become allies with parents and teachers instead of pointing fingers at them. He noted that there is a worldwide movement (at least 50 countries) that has called for the eliminating of corporal punishment; it is strong and growing. Durrant studied 18,000 substantiated cases of child abuse in 2003. 77% were found to be the result of parents’ attempting to correct the child’s behavior and it escalated to abuse. He is hoping that by educating parents, they can prevent a great deal of trauma. It follows that Sombat’s research interest is in the area of violence prevention in children and adolescents. He has conducted research projects on positive discipline and bullying prevention through a grant from the Thai Health Promotion Foundations. Also, he is on a research team with Duke University on the effects of parenting behavior on children’s adjustment across cultures and with Temple University on adolescents’ decision-making. He is part of Joan Durrant’s team at the University of Manitoba researching the effect of positive discipline on families trapped in the cycle of violence. Another research project is on youth resilience with Dalhousie University in Canada. Sombat is a speaker who presents on topics ranging from stress management, communication and interpersonal relationship skills, assertive behavior, counseling skills, AIDS counseling, Gestalt Therapy, personal growth, conflict resolution and mediation, violence prevention, sexual abuse, harassment and assault prevention and traditional Thai massage. He has written over 11 articles in English and 10 in Thai on subjects ranging from community psychology, Thai massage, psychologists, psychology in Thailand, physical discipline and children’s adjustment, progressive relaxation, burnout in AIDS workers and bullying prevention. Another important part of Sombat’s life is the practice of Aikido. This is a Japanese martial art that is non-violent and non-competitive. In many ways, it integrates what is close to his heart in that it promotes a spirit of loving protection and is conducive to physical and mental health. He has trained in Aikido for almost 40 years and is still training. He holds a fourth degree black belt. During his years at university, he founded the CMU Aikido Club and now, after his retirement, he has created an Aikido Training Center on part of his property called, “Renshinkan” (the place to cultivate the mind). Here is a way that Sombat brings together families –both children and adults- to involve them in various activities. The Center sponsors about 30 children. He recently established a charitable foundation called “Peace Culture Foundation” to engage in community projects and research to strengthen family and community and to cultivate peace in Thai society.

Message to the EMDR Therapy Community:

'Although treatment of trauma-related problems is necessary and worthy of praise, I think we cannot just continue to treat people affected without trying to do something to prevent it from happening in the first place. We will have to help society to be more informed about trauma and how it affects all aspects of our lives, and support adults in their care of children so that we will not continue to transmit our trauma through generations.'

Sombat has two sons and one granddaughter, aged 4. His current partner shares his interests and is a theater artist, actor and director who is finishing her Ph.D. in Peace Building at Payap Univeristy, Chiang Mai. He is a welcomed member of our community.


“A Community of Heart Profile: Sombat Tapanya,” Francine Shapiro Library, accessed July 15, 2024, https://francineshapirolibrary.omeka.net/items/show/24293.

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