Mental wellbeing in Malaysia: It’s okay to not be okay

AS the COVID-19 pandemic continues to gain prevalence in Malaysia, mental health issues are cropping up.

Border closures, social isolation, economic insecurity and the loss of loved ones have become major drivers of depression, anxiety and suicide, and the numbers are staggering.

According to the 2019 National Health and Morbidity survey, 2.3% of Malaysia’s adult population, or roughly half a million people, suffer from depression.

Putrajaya had the highest prevalence of depression at 5.4%, followed by Negeri Sembilan (5%) and Perlis (4.3%).

These figures, warn mental health experts, may get worse, given the impact of the pandemic on jobs and lives.

In Malaysia, addressing mental health issues have always posed a problem, seeing as to how it is not prioritised the way that physical health is. But the onus is not only on the Government per se, but on the society as a whole.

In Malaysia (and in many Asian cultures), there are strong social stigmas attached to mental health. Talking about mental health has always been taboo, perpetuating the idea that mental illness is shameful and must be kept hidden.

People suffering from mental illnesses often experience discrimination in every aspect of their lives, which causes them to feel ashamed for something that is beyond their control.

Worse still, the stigma also becomes their prison and prevents people from seeking the help that they need.

Unfortunately, as the impact of the pandemic on mental health surges in Malaysia, the Government appears to be unprepared to tackle this issue.

The country’s 2020 Budget, for example, has only allocated only RM344.8 mil to mental healthcare, which is slightly more than one per cent of the total budget for healthcare. More shockingly, this is lower than the international average of 2.8%!

So how do we go about giving mental health the proper attention that it deserves? For one, the country must work faster to amend its laws to humanise its approach to mental health.

Currently, Malaysia is one of three ASEAN countries that still criminalise suicide and attempted suicide, the other two being Myanmar and Brunei.

Decriminalising suicide attempts will give people with mental illnesses to come forward without fear of stigma or recrimination, to seek help.

Eliminating barriers, too, is important for our society to progress towards a mental health stigma free community. People must do away with the negativity and fear for recrimination surrounding mental health, and must be encouraged to talk about it more openly.

Making mental health a regular part of the schools’ regular curriculum is also a good idea.

This will equip students with the means of dealing with the challenges, and teach students that it is okay to seek help.

Mental health is, at the end of the day, as important as one’s physical health. Therefore, the Government, along with the relevant ministries, must act accordingly and give mental illnesses the recognition that it is due.

Only then can we truly begin to heal from the trauma that the pandemic has brought upon us. – April 9, 2021

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