KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 3 — We often hear about the state of a person’s mental health only after they have committed horrific acts of violence or suicide.
Mental health issues can be debilitating. Sadly, instead of being given proper help, people who are suffering from it are often accused of being “over-dramatic” or “weak”. This is because in Malaysia, mental health issues are not treated with the same degree of importance as physical health.
In January this year, a woman in her 30s jumped from the 10th floor of her apartment in Kajang. She was later discovered to have a history of mental illness.
Another suicide in April involved a 20-year-old straight-A student who jumped from the 14th floor of an apartment in Seremban due to depression. A note left for her parents stated that she had been afraid of disappointing them and felt tremendous pressure because she could not cope with her studies.
In both cases, the victims could have been helped had it been socially acceptable to talk about mental health problems. However, there is a stigma surrounding that issue that prevents the problem from being discussed openly.
That is why victims often suffer in silence and do not get the help they need, whether in time or at all. There will only be a short-lived discussion on the matter after a sudden rise in suicide cases, for example, before the issue is buried and forgotten, yet again.
Stigma in Malaysia
A clinical psychologist from the Prince Court Medical Centre Urmilah Dass says the stigma surrounding mental health in Malaysia is unwarranted.
“It’s a shame, really. Asians still hold on to the belief that only weak people succumb to mental issues,” she tells Bernama.
The stigma surrounding mental issues is so prevalent that it prevents those afflicted by it from getting the help they need.
“They may be labelled as crazy, weak, over-sensitive, lacking in faith as well as over-dramatic,” says Urmilah.
Although some are resilient enough to ignore naysayers and proceed with getting the help they need, others succumb to social pressure and end up struggling with the symptoms alone.
The lack of a diagnosis from a medical professional also makes it difficult for them to get the help they need to manage their symptoms as well as societal validation of the gravity of their condition.
The rise of mental health issues
The number of cases related to poor mental health are sharply rising in Malaysia and as such, calls for better education on the matter.
The findings of the 2015 National Health Morbidity Survey (NHMS) revealed an increasing trend in mental health problems among Malaysian adults, from 10.7 percent in 1996 to 29.2 percent in 2015.
The percentage is derived from the 29,460 respondents who participated in the survey, 20,940 of which were 16 years and above. This means that every 3 in 10 adults aged 16 years and above have some sort of mental health problems.
The survey showed that females, younger adults and adults from low-income families were among those at higher risk of mental health problems.
Those from 16-19 years old recorded the highest prevalence of mental health problems at 34.7 percent, followed by those 20-24 years of age (32.1 percent) and those aged from 25-29 (30.5 percent).
These figures show that young working-age adults between 20-30 years old are more likely to suffer from mental health problems.
This is something not to be taken lightly as according to the Health Ministry’s 2016 Malaysia Health Systems Research, mental health issues leave a large impact on the economy.
Unfortunately, there are a limited number of psychologists and psychiatrists in Malaysia to deal with the surge in such cases.
According to the Malaysian Medical Council, there is only one psychologist to treat every 100,000 patients and one psychiatrist to attend to every 150,000 patients.
The NHMS predicts that by mental health problems will become the second biggest health problem affecting Malaysians after heart disease by 2020, unless proper measures are taken to address the issue.
When to seek professional help
The Deputy President of the Malaysia Psychiatric Association Dr Hazli Zakaria says that those with mental issues generally never seek treatment because they are afraid or ashamed to admit they have a problem.
Worse yet, some do not even realise they have a problem, he says. However, there are signs that may be evident to those close to them.
A red flag may be when a person who is friendly by nature suddenly becomes introverted or anti-social, says Dr Hazli.
Urmilah, meanwhile, says that other symptoms include a change in sleeping pattern, such as sleeping too much or having trouble sleeping.
Mental illness can also affect someone’s appetite, motivation, self-worth and leave them in a state of hopelessness and despair.
Tackling the stigma
Urmilah hopes that with exposure and education on the issue, the stigma surrounding mental health problems will reduce and eventually disappear.
“By raising awareness, more people will learn about the issue and understand that there is no shame in asking for help,” she says.
Organising support groups, making help more readily available and including the importance of good mental health in school curriculums will also help spread awareness on the issue, she says.
“The support from family and friends is both imperative and helpful. It is a matter of recognising and accepting the problems the person is facing,” she added. — Bernama