ALTHOUGH the overall unemployment rate in May this year (4.5%) hit a 14-month low compared to April 2020 (5%), the Statistics Department of Malaysia’s definition of employed persons also involves those working one hour a week and who may be unpaid workers in a family enterprise, which masks the underemployment taking place in the informal economy where official statistics may not capture them.

With the loss or decrease in income arising from reduced working hours, more Malaysians, especially breadwinners, single parents and mothers, may resort to ending their lives as a result of the ongoing financial stress due to the prolonged lockdown.

Single mothers, who are a socially and economically vulnerable group, are particularly at risk of various physical and mental health problems. According to a survey conducted by South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality in 2015, single parents with low education and income levels are more likely to experience depressive symptoms. Therefore, there is an increasing concern that more single mothers in Malaysia may commit suicide when they are unable to feed their children.

Another vulnerable group are youths. Due to their lack of working experience, they find it hard to secure a decent job with decent pay and benefits. When the company downsizes, young people are often the first to be laid off (or face a reduction in working hours).

As the Covid-19 daily infection figures remain above the 10,000 mark, youths who cannot cope with the continuous rise in living costs will become demotivated in pursuing their life goals, and may eventually choose to end their miserable lives.

While it may appear irrational to end one’s life, an individual would be inclined to commit suicide when their perception of the derived benefit of living into the future falls below the expected costs of committing suicide. Such a phenomenon is particularly apparent when the individual is the only one among his circle of friends who loses his job. He may contemplate suicide even though he is aware that it may have a devastating effect on his family and friends.

EMIR Research has written an article on the effects of the pandemic, resulting in many having mental illness, which has led them to take the drastic and tragic step of committing suicide.

It may not be easy to see the signs of someone with suicidal thoughts, however, when someone behaves out of character, we can do our part by learning to recognise the warning signs of suicide so psychological first aid-based helplines can be extended to those who desperately need help immediately.

Losing interest in daily activities, having difficulty focusing and carrying out daily tasks, consuming more drugs or alcohol than usual, isolating themselves from others and expressing a desire to commit suicide on social media are some of the symptoms of someone contemplating suicide.

There are five steps where citizens can assist someone in emotional pain as suggested by the US National Institute of Mental Health:

1. Ask: Although “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” is not an easy question. Studies show that asking at-risk individuals if they are suicidal does not increase suicides or suicidal thoughts;

2. Keep them safe: Reducing a suicidal person’s access to highly-lethal items or places is crucial for suicide prevention. While this is not always easy, asking if the at-risk person has a plan and removing or disabling the lethal means can make a difference;

3. Be there: Be a good listener and learn what the individual is thinking and feeling. Encouraging them to talk and release their sadness. Research suggests acknowledging and talking about suicide may reduce rather than increase suicidal thoughts;

4. Help them connect: Connect with a trusted individual like a family member, friend, spiritual adviser or mental health professional; and

5. Stay connected: Staying in touch after a crisis or after the person at-risk is discharged from care can make a difference. Studies have shown that the number of suicide deaths goes down when someone follows up.

As suicidal thoughts or actions are signs of extreme distress, Malaysian citizens can save the following numbers in their phones:

(i) Women, Family and Community Development Ministry’s Talian Kasih hotline at 15999 or via WhatsaApp number at 019-2615 999 and,

(ii) Befrienders (03-76272929).

By resonating with the feelings and emotions of loved ones, counselling services can help the struggling persons to realise how detrimental their loss would be to those they care about, which in turn decreases the chances of them wanting to commit suicide. If the individual perceives that the value of living is greater than dying, the suicide rate will decrease.

Although the current administration is expanding mental health infrastructure to assist the vulnerable ones in managing mental illness problems during this prolonged lockdown, there is still a continuous need for empathy for the plight of ordinary Malaysians as they struggle to weather this challenging time.

Aside from the RM15 million given to non-governmental organisations (NGO) to assist the government in addressing social issues such as mental health, homelessness and other social problems under the Pemulih stimulus package, there are several steps required to moderate the mental health impacts from unemployment and income losses.

Towards this end, EMIR Research urges the government to:

1. Organise door-to-door visits to understand the needs and problems of the citizens, particularly among the low-income groups, in addition to providing psychological first aid-based helplines for them to express their psychosocial concerns;

2. Develop more high-skilled and high-income job opportunities under Jana Kerja, Penjana Kerja, etc to ensure more Malaysians can secure jobs that match the current industry needs in the country;

3. Integrate food and nutrition-focused programmes with different transfer modalities such as in-kind, cash or vouchers into social protection systems. Women and children from low-income households, in particular, can use food vouchers or cash to buy food. Such an initiative would ensure everyone has a basic income, giving them the ability to cover their essential spending and enjoy healthy food;

4. Work closely with soup kitchens, NGO and the Social Welfare Department for meal distribution. Cross-sector collaboration in terms of meal distribution can prevent individuals who cannot afford to put food on the table from attempting suicide to end their problems; and

5. Turn MySejahtera into a super app that can address the root cause of mental illness, besides fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. The developer could apply machine learning and artificial intelligence tools, to assist the government in predicting and intervening in suicidal behaviour among its citizens. In turn, the users could receive advice and prescriptions from certified healthcare providers via text messaging or video calls that may discourage them from attempting suicide as a way to solving their problems.

To conclude, early intervention on suicide prevention is necessary to help individuals with suicidal thoughts to find new ways to cope with their pain from job loss or income reduction, giving them the ability to start all over again.

Amanda Yeo is Research Analyst at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.