KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 10 ― In Malaysia, mental illness is frequently taboo. Despite the unwillingness to confront or address this, however, its prevalence is rising.
According to the Health Ministry’s 2015 National Health Morbidity Survey (NHMS), up to 4.2 million Malaysians over 16 years’ old — around 30 per cent of the segment — experience some form of mental illness.
In 2006, it was just 11.2 per cent.
Trained psychologist Dr Chua Sook Ning is looking to change the stigma that is preventing many of these Malaysians from seeking the help and treatment they may need.
Inspired by a social media movement in the US, the Malaysian academic and researcher with the National Institute of Education (NIE) under Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, launched a campaign here to demonstrate both the prevalence and normality of mental health issues.
Called #ImNotAshamed, it was launched on February 3.
It invites people with mental health issues and others sympathetic to the problem to post a photo of themselves and their stories on social media together with the #ImNotAshamed hashtag.
“People are afraid. They are hiding in the dark and are refusing to talk about such issues openly owing to taboos,” Dr Chua told Malay Mail Online.
“So this is a unique approach to get people to say ‘Hey! Yes, I have mental illness’.”
Dr Chua explained that the movement would hopefully let those with mental health issues know they are not alone and help them recognise that they may have a treatable condition rather than some unspeakable disease.
She said that while some are prepared to come out about their issues, others may need coaxing before they can confront their mental health concerns.
From the campaign, Dr Chua said she found a surfeit of misinformation and ignorance.
“I got people who tweeted what people told them when they found out about their peers’ mental illness. People say ‘you are possessed by jinns, you are faking it, you are lazy, you are not reading the Quran enough, you are trying to avoid work.’ It's pure judgmental,” Dr Chua said.
She expressed particular concern over the continued denial of mental health issues, despite the spike in Malaysian sufferers between 2006 and 2015 that she dubbed a crisis.
Public policy shortfalls
According to the Health Ministry’s Plan of Action 2016-2020 report, only 10 per cent of mental illness patients find employment after undergoing the government's Individual Placement & Support- Supported Employment (IPS-SE).
Dr Chua said this was due to the government not addressing the issue directly and not providing adequate solutions.
She also pointed out that there were few emergency medical care options at both public and private hospitals for patients suffering from psychotic breakdowns.
“If you are feeling suicidal and have a history of acting psychotic, hospitals will turn you away. Only limited hospitals have emergency psychiatric care,” she said.
Dr Chua explained that this was due to the vicious cycle of insufficient funding that is caused by low demand, which stems from a lack of awareness of mental health issues.
“We have about one psychiatrist per 150,000 people and this (information) is from the Medical Council of Malaysia. As for psychologists, it's one for every 100,000 people. How are they going to cater to the volume?” she questioned.
Both psychiatrists and psychologists treat mental health issues, but only the former are physicians with the authority to prescribe medication.
Not just awareness
Dr Chua is not only interested in educating the public on mental health sufferers and professionals, however.
She is also currently working with Monash University Australia to develop an application with over 200 educational and early treatment exercises.
These are evidence-based activities that have been shown to be effective in past studies.
“I’m looking at solutions with minimal manpower, but proven to be effective. Effective, but doesn’t replace traditional way of treatments at the same time,” she said.
Dr Chua also founded Relate Malaysia last year, an NGO formed to promote public awareness, develop interventions and change policies.
It would also hold a database listing mental health experts for those seeking help, after she realised that many were unaware that such professionals were available locally.The database is still under development.
She is also working with another local mental health awareness movement, Minda, to increase public discussion and to spread awareness on the topic.
A safe platform for those who are afraid
It also aims to organise forums and discussions on mental health in an attempt to normalise open exchanges on such issues.
They also hope to create a monthly social gathering where those who with mental health issues can discuss these in a safe setting.
“Something like those closed groups for alcoholics. We do it for this group of people to encourage them to speak up and seek help.
“They need to connect with those around them to know they are not alone and that what they are experiencing is not any form of divine punishment,” Fatin added.
On the reception for the campaign via social media, the trio said response was surprisingly encouraging, though some still preferred messaging them privately via Twitter and Facebook to seek help.
“It takes time to change a mentality that is ingrained like a culture, but the message needs to be constantly shared publicly to change this mindset,” Fatin added.