Let’s flatten the mental health curve — Ida Fazila Ismail

OCTOBER 7 — You have probably heard a lot about how Covid-19 has exacerbated mental health issues locally and globally. The spread of the virus, loss of lives, economic insecurities, unemployment, isolation, increase in domestic violence and suddenly being forced to adapt to the new normal have exposed society to overwhelming mental health challenges including anxiety, depression, acute stress and the increase in substance use.

Without warning, we are thrown into an uncharted territory — a dual crisis of physical and mental health. In just a short span of time, mental illnesses have become a universal reality as more people including children and the elderly begin to struggle with fear, grief, panic, and a severe sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

An article in The Atlantic on July 7, 2020 entitled “This Is Not a Normal Mental-Health Disaster”, the writer commented how the psychological effects of Covid-19 would long outlast the pandemic itself. According to the article, the world should learn from the lessons of the SARS pandemic in 2003 to manage Covid-19’s impact on mental health, after discovering that more than 40 per cent of SARS survivors experienced alarming psychiatric illnesses, most commonly depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that almost one billion people are living with a mental disorder, three million people die every year from the harmful use of alcohol and one person dies every 40 seconds by suicide. Yet, the WHO revealed that few people worldwide have access to quality mental health services whereby more than 75 per cent of people with mental, neurological and substance use disorders in low- and middle-income countries receive no treatment for their conditions at all. This is indeed shocking but not surprising, given the existing stigma, discrimination, punitive legislation and disparities in access to mental health services.

As the world continues to grapple with Covid-19, it is crucial to address the pandemic’s further impact on mental health. Ignoring the mental health fallout from Covid-19 can have a profound impact on society’s mental wellbeing and unfold a catastrophic secondary health crisis that may last long after the pandemic subsides.

This year’s World Mental Health Day, themed “Mental Health for All. Greater Investment — Greater Access. Everyone, everywhere” calls for increased funding in mental health services to ensure that every member of society has equal and universal access to a holistic and sustainable system of treatment.

Additionally, this year’s theme is set to reaffirm global commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG) No. 3 on Good Health and Wellbeing that aims to achieve good mental health for all which is imperative to better overall health.

Mental health is a human right and nobody should be denied quality and equitable access to mental healthcare. Dr Brock Chisholm, the first director-general of the WHO, famously stated that “without mental health there can be no true physical health”. Good mental health, alongside physical health, contribute to productive employees which lead to economic growth and a prosperous nation.

The WHO indicated that serious gaps that still exist in mental healthcare are a result of chronic under-investment over the past decades. It specified that on average, countries spend less than two per cent of their national health budgets on mental health. The Organization claimed that despite an increase of development assistance for mental health in recent years, it has never exceeded 1 per cent of development assistance for health.

According to the WHO, depression and anxiety have a significant global economic impact which could cost US$1 trillion (RM4.2 trillion) per year in lost productivity. The organisation highlighted that for every US$1 put into increased treatment for common mental disorders, there is a return of US$5 in improved health and productivity. That is five times the amount invested. Imagine how a country can thrive and prosper with a healthier and happier workforce, especially in these unprecedented times. Meanwhile, for every US$1 invested in evidence-based treatment for drug dependence, there is a return of up to US$7 in reduced crime and criminal justice costs. This serves as a unique opportunity to reduce substance abuse, criminal behaviour and incarceration which can help improve overall public health.

During World Suicide Prevention Day 2020 last month, Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Adham Baba mentioned that a total of 465 attempted suicide cases treated at the Ministry of Health (MOH) have been recorded from January to June this year. Government helplines also received 11,791 calls between March 25, 2020 and August 2020 with callers experiencing an average of three issues and 50 per cent of the problems require emotional support and counselling for stress, anxiety and despair.

Given the severity of Covid-19 and the implementation of the movement control order (MCO)’s impact on Malaysians’ mental health, generating greater awareness on mental health and scaling up investment in mental healthcare have become more important than ever before.

The MOH’s support of the decriminalisation of suicide attempts is a timely and appropriate move. While the Attorney-General’s Chambers is currently studying the matter, it is critical for the government to take a step further in ensuring that Malaysians living with mental health conditions especially those with suicidal ideation receive the help that they need by considering imposing a moratorium on attempted suicide, as proposed by various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and mental health advocates. This effort will certainly assist in eradicating the stigma surrounding suicide and encourage more people to reach out for help.

Like any other illnesses, mental disorders are vital facets of primary care that warrant bigger investment in research, and effective and innovative treatments to address them. The future of Covid-19 remains unpredictable but our failure to take people’s mental wellbeing seriously will lead to immense and unnecessary economic costs to society including a tremendous burden on the healthcare system.

Mental healthcare is a right, not a luxury but unfortunately, it remains inaccessible and unaffordable to many. In conjunction with this year’s World Mental Health Day, let’s work together as individuals, communities, organisations, policymakers and the government to turn this challenge into an opportunity to make mental healthcare a reality for everyone.

As we continue to practise wearing masks, social distancing and cleaning our hands religiously during this pandemic, let’s not forget to acknowledge the implications of Covid-19 on our mental wellbeing and commit ourselves to flatten the mental health curve.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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