Malaysia needs to do a lot more for mental health

Many aspects of mental healthcare in the country need improvement and reform.

Awareness Against Suicide (Awas) said this includes addressing mental health stigma, decriminalising suicide attempts, costly mental healthcare and lack of funding.

“Firstly, the stigma. Due to poor understanding of mental health, it is often regarded as taboo to talk about it and to seek professional help.

“This impacts our progress in providing better mental health services, namely lack of mental health professionals, lack of treatment for mental disorders, poor insurance coverage for mental illness, lower study and job opportunities for individuals with mental disorders and non-standardised government policies on inclusivity.

“Secondly, we must decriminalise suicide attempts. Section 309 of the Penal Code needs to be abolished or revised.

“People who attempt suicide are mostly struggling with mental health issues.

“Unfortunately, in Malaysia, if an individual attempts suicide and gets caught, instead of being given mental health support and care, he or she can be jailed or fined or both.

“Thirdly, healthcare for mental health issues is costly. Hence, there is the misconception that mental healthcare is only meant for the higher income group or that it is a problem only faced by people who have enough, but aren’t grateful or ‘not mentally strong’.

“Due to this, the lower income group would perceive this not as a health matter, but a spiritual matter.

“It is therefore important that all levels of income have equal access to mental health treatment.

“Lastly, lack of funding. Although it has increased this year, it is considerably low given the fact that many people are experiencing grief and loss on a massive scale due to the (Covid-19) pandemic.

“The loss of loved ones and livelihoods have hit us hard and have resulted in more people struggling with their mental health now than ever before.”

On Friday, United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres warned against a global mental health crisis.

Bernama, quoting the Xinhua news agency, reported that Guterres, in a video message at the launch of the World Mental Health Report 2022: Transforming Mental Health For All, said nearly one billion people worldwide had a mental health condition and most of them lacked access to treatment.

He said the Covid-19 pandemic had increased mental health problems and led to a far greater understanding of the importance and fragility of good mental health.

He said in most countries, mental health remained the most neglected area of health policy.

Awas said Malaysia must apply a top-down approach so that when policies were in place, the people would understand that mental health was a health matter and a serious one that should not be taken lightly.

Consultant clinical psychologist Urmilah Dass said there must be a lot of changes in how mental health was handled in the country.

“Mental health is not a minor thing. Unlike a broken leg or heart attack, it is something hidden that you cannot see.

“It is something that people can mask and people get on with their lives every day thinking that they can still work.

“But this is your mind, which goes on for 24/7 if you’re not sleeping. It is torture if you go through it without any help.”

She said many people’s mental health had taken a huge hit due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“As a practitioner, I’m seeing more and more people struggling with mental health coming for help.

“They were trapped at home worrying about illness and death.

“There is a lot of grief and trauma and not enough mental health support in our country.

“We have more than 32 million people, but how many psychiatrists and psychologists are available in the country?

“With so few of us, there is a long waiting list.”

But, Urmilah said, Malaysia was doing a lot more than before.

“A lot of NGOs as well as the government, through the Health Ministry, have offered helplines for those seeking emotional support and counselling.

“These helplines should remain open so that individuals who require support can get assistance.” – NST


Ethical reporting on suicides can help save lives

The recent news of suicide cases in Penang has left the nation aghast, to say the least. This is not surprising, however, as cases of suicide have seen an alarming and concerning rise in recent times. While this is a situation that certainly needs to be addressed, another aspect that requires equal attention is the manner in which suicides are reported in the media.

The ethical reporting of suicide by the media and the public can play an active role in changing perception and avoiding suicide contagion while creating heightened awareness on this dire issue. With recent cases in Malaysia having covered by the media and shared by individuals – the various components that make up such content, including headlines, language and images can all have an impact on the general public because of the media’s influential role in society.

“I believe reporting, when done safely, facilitates important conversations on mental health and how to get appropriate care and treatment. Providing helplines are helpful, but what is far more important, is to have more news articles with an overall emphasis on encouraging adaptive coping and help-seeking in looking after one’s mental health,” commented Dr Ng Yin Ping, Consultant Psychiatrist, Pantai Hospital Penang and Vice-chair of i-Life Suicide Prevention Association of Penang.

Echoing her concerns, Norman Goh, Press and Information Officer with the Delegation of the European Union to Malaysia said, “Suicide-related stories are of public interest and the media have a role to safely and responsibly report such stories. They should use the opportunity to allay any stigma on mental health and create better awareness in the society to be kinder towards people in need of help.”

In this regard, the Communications and Multimedia Content Forum of Malaysia (the Content Forum) believes that all suicide-related content must be reported and shared ethically and responsibly based on available best practices and media guidelines, including the Guidelines for Media Reporting on Suicide 2011 by the Ministry of Health Malaysia. Aside from promoting responsible reporting on suicide by the media, these guidelines are also aimed at reducing the prevalence of suicide in Malaysia, particularly the issue of imitation suicide, which is increasingly becoming an equally alarming issue.

The guidelines highlight that the degree of publicity given to a suicide story can be linked to the number of subsequent suicides. Studies have shown that there are typically increases in suicide cases reported after inappropriate broadcast news reports of cases of suicide. In print media, highly publicized stories that appear often seem to carry the greatest impact – especially if they involve celebrities or influential figures.

“There is serious implication in sharing detailed methods and narratives of how a suicide happens as it can become instructive to a vulnerable individual. In the same vein, sharing help-seeking resources will be that glimmer of hope for someone who needs that helping hand,” said Dr Ravivarma Panirselvam, psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health, Hospital Miri.

The Content Forum has sounded a clarion call to members of the media to take a stand and change aspects of unethical and irresponsible reporting of suicides to ensure that this complex topic is handled tactfully and factually. This can gradually work to change society’s perception and handling of this issue, including awareness on mental health and what can be done to help those in need.

“We understand that there are many out there who may not be aware of what constitutes ethical reporting of suicide cases, and the Content Forum is committed to heighten awareness of the same. Media professionals have been quite accommodating whenever we approach them to highlight aspects of their reporting that go against best practices, and they revise their content accordingly. This form of self-regulation is highly encouraged not just among media professionals but also content creators, and the general public,” said the Content Forum Executive Director Mediha Mahmood.

“In this era of social media and ‘viral’ content, people tend to gravitate towards more sensationalised reporting of cases in news. However, it is important to understand that covering this topic responsibly will not only help with grieving families but also reduce the risk of suicide contagion.”

The guidelines for media reporting on suicide by the Disease Control Division Ministry of Health Malaysia (MOH) can be found here https://www.moh.gov.my/index.php/database_stores/attach_download/554/56.

For more information on the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Content Code, kindly visit  https://contentforum.my/.