FROM August 1 this year, calls to the Befrienders helpline have been made free-of-charge thanks to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) and eight telecommunications operators. The endeavour is part of an initiative to prevent and eradicate suicide. A non-profit organisation, Befrienders lends emotional support to the depressed, distressed and suicidal, 24/7/365.
The “act of intentionally causing one’s own death”, otherwise known as “committing suicide” is closely associated with mental illness. Sadly, suicidal rates around the world have been escalating. But what’s worse is the stigma around it, which is why family members of victims and attempted-suicide victims, prefer to keep mum and crucial conversations that can help tackle burgeoning mental ill-health is naught.
theSun’s Mark Mathen Victor discusses some related issues with practising clinical psychologist, Lavender Tan.
In your opinion, how does Malaysia fair in terms of awareness on mental health and disorders; is the ‘condition’ more accepted and recognised among society in this modern age or is there still a stigma to even talk about it?
I feel that awareness on mental health issues in Malaysia has increased significantly. We have politicians talking about it, the healthcare industry is placing more emphasis on it, corporates are investing more on mental health for their employees, and even the media and social media influencers are spreading awareness on it! So there’s definitely some form of maturation/development in this area, which I feel incredibly happy and optimistic about.
However, the stigma attached to mental health problems is still very much alive today. There are a lot of misconceptions and lack of understanding and openness. In some groups, people with mental disorders and those seeking help are still ‘judged’. So there’s definitely room for more education and awareness.
In your practice, do only adults seek psychological help or do you have child patients too; are they mainly from urban or rural parts of the country?
I see both children and adults. While in the past, I would have said that it seemed like people are more willing to get help for their kids and not themselves, that has changed significantly. Those who initially come in for their children are now more willing to seek help for themselves; they now see the bigger picture to many of their children’s difficulties. The clientele now is a lot more varied, and it stems from an underlying desire to be better and show up better for their loved ones, which I feel is admirable. So we get people of all ages coming in now, even individuals from the more senior age group (above 50 and 60), they whom we might have perceived to be less open to seeking help.
On urban or rural - because I’m based in the Klang Valley, I only see clients from urban areas. There is definitely more access to mental health support in the urban areas, as well as knowledge, awareness and openness to it. But I feel it’s slowly improving as help is gradually becoming available in other parts of the country; I often get asked for referrals for psychologists and counsellors based there. From what I understand, it is still a struggle for individuals from rural areas to get the help that they need, simply because there aren’t as many clinicians in rural districts.
Is Malaysia closer to more ‘modern countries’ in terms of stress management; is there a reliance on psychologists/therapists or modern medicine to suppress/stimulate stress-related problems?
In my personal opinion, we are on the way to becoming more like the highly-developed nations in terms of stress management but not quite there yet, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. There is a difference between our culture and theirs in that we are a more ‘collectivistic culture’ as opposed to western countries which are considered to be a bit more individualistic (eg. children are expected to move out by the time they’re 18, etc.)
For example, a modern-day Malaysian mother may find herself experiencing postnatal depression, and the judgments she receives may be along the lines of “You’re just being weak and self-indulgent, the previous generation gave birth to seven or eight kids and didn’t go into depression, what’s wrong with you?,” etc.
While in previous generations, basically the whole kampung gather to help at childbirth, many modern mothers today live in different cities from their parents and get little to no help at all.
To a certain extent, we have coped in different ways. Some people have a lot more family and friends closer to them; some form tighter communities; etc. So perhaps with this kind of support in place, people do not have to be as reliant on psychologists/ therapists or modern medicine as much.
Ideally, treatment utilising medication for symptoms and psychotherapy to address root causes, thoughts and behaviors are useful in helping people cope with the changes, which is why we are seeing an increase in the application of mental health care services.
Your thoughts on teenagers taking their lives due to the stress that comes with school/exams; in this digital age, where self-help information is readily available online, what do you think are the hurdles we must cross in getting these kids the needed help?
Unfortunately, readily available information has its downside. While self-help materials are readily available, so are articles and content teaching kids how to self-harm or commit suicide. And when somebody is depressed, they may be more likely to seek out content that is congruent to their mood rather than self-help articles.
So perhaps the hurdle is that we’re not really reaching these kids. While spreading awareness through social media is great, important and useful, what we need is personal connection and interaction. If you’re a parent, spend more time with your kids. If you’re a brother or sister, spend more time really talking to and opening up to your siblings and even their friends. If you’re a leader in your (place of worship), make an effort to get to know and connect with the younger members. Genuine connections and concern from somebody who actually knows you is so much more effective in motivating one to seek help than a random post on Facebook, am I right?
What more do you think governmental bodies and organisations can do?
I think they play a crucial part in regulation and spreading awareness. This is because the field is still working towards tighter regulations around Psychologists, and this is important because we want to make sure that when people seek help, they’re going to mental health professionals who are adequately and properly trained, and properly regulated. Additionally, it would also be helpful to make useful information easily available on how to select the right professionals, where to access help, etc. [Note: Research reveals that by 2020, mental illness is expected to be the second biggest health problem affecting Malaysians after heart disease.]
Lavender Tan has a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology. She carries out psychotherapy, psychological assessments and diagnoses, and conducts wellness training.