Addressing students’ mental health issues

GROWING up today is a challenge, especially after all of our children were confined to their homes during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The rise of the Internet, especially social media, also contributed to the many pressures on the shoulders of our younger generation. 

Many young people are struggling with poor mental health with an estimated 86 million young people aged 15-19 living with a diagnosed mental health condition. Among these, 50% begin by the age of 14 and 75% by their mid-20s. 

This means that mental health issues strike while they are in the prime of their academic lives, spanning the years from secondary school into college and university. 

In Malaysia, the National Health and Morbidity Survey found the prevalence of mental health problems is highest among those aged 16-19 years, with 18.3% having depression and 10% having suicidal thoughts. 

Among the causal factors include unemployment, financial difficulties, family and relationship problems, which in turn are compounded by poor coping skills and insufficient social support. There are also many barriers to treatment such as poor understanding of mental health problems, fear of social stigma or embarrassment, lack of social support and difficulty accessing professional services. 

Many tertiary students, both local and abroad, have a much more difficult time coping with matters of mental health, which can sometimes manifest in chronic (long-term) behavioural changes. Often, these signs — such as sleeping difficulties and being easily angered — can be most easily noticed by family, friends and others, such as peers or teachers. 

Some of these warning signs can be easily misunderstood or misconstrued in different social contexts. Hence, it is important to be patient in understanding a person’s behaviours when these signs could indicate possible mental health risk. 

The next step is to offer support to someone who is struggling, and the International Medical University (IMU) Self-Development Unit counsellors say that listening to our intuition is very important – very often, the signs are there that tell us something is wrong, but we may turn a blind eye and ignore them. In some instances, we may even feel concerned about our own safety. 

Here is their advice, based on the NEC model:

Notice — tell the person what you’ve observed that has worried you, such as “I noticed that you haven’t been eating/sleeping much lately”. 

Express concern — let them know that you are worried about them and offer them space and privacy to listen to them and support them in any way such as “I’m worried about you. What happened? I’m here for you”.

Connect them to someone who can help — suggest a person or resource where they can get the help they need, or offer to accompany them when they are ready to seek professional help. For example, “I might not know how to solve this now, but I know a friend who got help from XYZ; maybe we can go there together?” Getting the right support is an important part of managing mental health, but at present, only an estimated 20% of Malaysians with mental health problems receive professional care.

There are several options available to individuals and/or their caregivers including NGOs with affordable fees such as AGAPE counselling, SOLS 24/7 and All Women’s Action Society (AWAM). You can also seek help from private mental health practitioners, including psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and counsellors, as well as practicum/internship programmes from certain universities such as IMU. 

Visit https://sites.google.com/view/psymalaysia/ for a more comprehensive list of mental health resources across Malaysia. — TMR 


  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition