Another MCO could affect mental health, says psychologist

Many will be forced to rethink their status in addition to efforts they’ve put in to rebuild since the last MCO


THE latest wave of Covid-19 cases has left many Malaysians unsettled as the sharp rise in new infections raises concerns of another nationwide lockdown.

The initial Movement Control Order (MCO) imposed in March had seen the number of suicides rising due to heightened stress from isolation and economic hardship related to the pandemic.

WeCare Allied Health Centre clinical psychologist Shazeema Mashood Shah said most people would not be able to cope if the MCO is reinstated as many would experience increased levels of anxiety, depression and panic attacks.

“In my opinion, people are still recovering from the previous MCO and are still not very stable. Many will be forced to rethink their status in addition to efforts they’ve put in to rebuild since the last MCO, so of course, there would be much stress involved.

“Some may also feel angry or frustrated towards people who may have contributed to the spread of the virus once again in the community,” she told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR).

In April, local think tank The Centre published a study at the height of the MCO, which showed Malaysians reporting high levels of negative emotions during the period.

It said some 45% of 1,084 respondents were experiencing varying levels of anxiety and depression during the partial lockdown period, with 34% reporting varying levels of stress.

Of the total, 22% of respondents reported severe and extremely severe anxiety levels, with 20% and 15% experiencing similarly alarming levels of depression and stress respectively.

The study also showed women experienced significantly more stress and anxiety compared to men. It noted that over 60% of those aged 18-24 and 25-34 reported signs of depression, and approximately 50% of the same age groups reported indications of anxiety and stress.

In comparison, only between 14% and 39% of those aged 35 and above reported similar signs, adding that on levels of severity, respondents from the 18-24 and 25-34 age groups reported up to two to three times more signs of severe and extremely severe negative emotions compared to those aged 55 and above.

Relate Mental Health Malaysia Bhd (Relate Malaysia) clinical psychologist Lum Khay Xian said a new MCO would force people to face the grim realities of the pandemic’s impact on their livelihoods and the economy.

“As humans are social beings, the loss of freedom and isolated living for a prolonged period may deprive our needs for connection and personal contact. The deprivation of such conditions may contribute to a stronger sense of loneliness, affecting individuals’ mental health.

“In this case, mental health conditions, substance abuse and suicidal behaviour may be expected to rise. The elderly and those who are living alone are especially at risk,” she told TMR.

That being said, the safety of all citizens is of utmost importance. Lum noted that if the implementation of the MCO is inevitable, there is a need for an action plan to help people cope with the lifestyle changes to build resilience through difficult times.

“The government may consider working with various organisations to look into addressing financial and mental health concerns such as providing emotional support or crisis helpline to prevent individuals’ mental health from deteriorating,” she added.

Meanwhile, Shazeema suggested more proactive measures to manage stress, including calming down and avoiding panic.

“Instead, think of a plan on how to approach the second MCO if it is reinstated. What they can remember and learn is that they have experienced it before, and they survived.

“They must also get a support system. Make sure you are connected with friends and family and talk about your worries and troubleshoot those problems. They don’t have to go through this alone,” she said.

Shazeema said that if things get too overwhelming and the stress cannot be handled, she encouraged people to get professional help.