Mental health pushed to tipping point with MCO 2.0

This uncertainty of the future, experts say, has escalated anxiety and depression especially among those living from hand to mouth

by AFIQ AZIZ / pic by AFP 

MALAYSIANS’ mental health is being pushed to a breaking point as the Movement Control Order (MCO) 2.0 progresses with more tragic stories circulating on various media platforms in recent weeks.

In some cases, the stay at home order has also caused the livelihood of many, particularly in the middle 40% and bottom 40% income groups, which has resulted in a number of social issues and personal mishaps.

This uncertainty of the future, experts said, has escalated anxiety and depression especially among those living from hand to mouth.

The Malaysian Reserve (TMR) reported that 1.2 million households would fall under the poverty line if monetary assistance is not provided during MCO 2.0.

On top of this, the police recently revealed that there has been an increase in incest cases since movement restrictions were first imposed in March last year.

Without a proper support system, analysts predict more social issues to surface which would lead to heavier crimes.

The International Counselling Association of Malaysia president Datuk Dr Abd Halim Mohd Hussin warned there would be more violence if professional groups do not intervene.

“It is just a matter of how severe the crime is because lockdowns and uncertainties affect people’s psychology and behaviour differently,” he told TMR in a phone interview recently.

The government’s reimplementation of the MCO from Jan 13 is seeing a high possibility of an extension as Malaysia is surpassing the 4,000 mark in daily cases, while the average daily cases are between 2,000 and 3,000 these past few days.

In the first five months of the previous MCO — when the infection rate was much lower — it was reported that the National Fire and Rescue Department had attended to 88 suicide attempts, where three were failed rescue attempts.

In November last year, the police revealed that 266 individuals had taken their own lives between March and October, with 25% of the cases related to debts, followed by family problems (24%) and marriage problems (23%).

Last month, Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Adham Baba told the Dewan Rakyat that 465 attempted suicide cases were referred to the ministry for treatment between January and July 2020. The cases, however, were not caused by the impact of the pandemic alone.

To overcome this, Abd Halim suggested a more integrated way to mobilise counsellors in the community, adding that the group had reached out to the people offering pro-bono services.

As at Oct 31, 2019, around 8,773 counsellors have been registered with the Board of Counsellors nationwide.

Some 500 counsellors have also volunteered to give free counselling on an online “tele-kaunseling” platform spearheaded by the board, so that the people would have a convenient avenue to address their issues.

“However, there is still the stigma that calling such lines indicate that you are mentally ill, while in other cases, people are just not comfortable talking to strangers.

“We are still trying to overcome this via our outreach programmes,” Abdul Halim added.

Prof Dr Haslee Sharil Lim Abdullah of Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia’s Faculty of Leadership and Management said without the accessibility of counselling and related services during MCO 2.0, a sharp rise in suicidal cases is possible.

Haslee Sharil said late intervention would only lead to a more “severe injury” in the public mental health – pic credit: Faculty of Leadership and Management, USIM

“When individuals succumb to the demands and challenges of life, they experience neuroses that affect their optimal personal functioning. They are either in despair, frustration, anger, stress, fear, anxiety, loneliness, emptiness or helplessness. They are almost in pieces.

“This is when counselling is crucial to help them pick up the pieces and regain their peace in order to soldier on,” he told TMR.

Based on the 2016 National Health and Morbidity Survey by the Health Ministry, 29.2% of the adult population aged 16 and above experienced mental health issues.

“By now, the figure could be much higher and increasing by the day, more so with the unabated onslaught of the pandemic,” the counsellor said.

Citing this as a wake-up call for the authorities, Haslee Sharil said late intervention would only lead to a more “severe injury” in the public’s mental health.

“By then, we could be in a crisis situation which warrants an immediate multi-agency team to manage,” he added.

He also explained that through counselling sessions, people will be provided with certain tools or contacts to help them through their critical down times.

Meanwhile, Universiti Malaya senior consultant psychiatrist Dr Muhammad Muhsin Ahmad Zahari said early counselling for those who are struggling with mental health is important.

He said such facilities should be considered as the first line of service and the issue must be addressed urgently.

“If we extrapolate this number of 465 (as mentioned by Dr Adham) it only represents four to five suicide attempts per month per state.

“It is quite common that there are as many as three to four suicide attempt cases per day per urban hospital.

“Therefore, to get a comprehensive figure, the methods of data collection should be properly described and defined,” he said, adding that there could be many unreported cases, as such the statistics would be higher.