Harapan health committee warns of looming mental illness crisis in Malaysia

Harapan health committee warns of looming mental illness crisis in Malaysia
Harapan health committee warns of looming mental illness crisis in Malaysia

The Pakatan Harapan Health Committee has urged the federal government to prioritise mental health measures and implement the necessary policy solutions to avert another crisis amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.

The committee cited Bukit Aman Criminal Investigations Department (CID) director Abdul Jalil Hassan as saying that police recorded 468 suicide cases in Malaysia in the first five months this year, up from an annual total of 631 cases in 2020 and 609 in 2019.

“This means three deaths by suicide occurred nationwide daily on average this year up to May - amid economically devastating lockdowns as the Covid-19 epidemic surged - almost double the 1.7 rate last year and in 2019.

“On top of that, a study of 1,163 respondents by Universiti Malaya entitled ‘Escalating progression of mental health disorders during the Covid-19 pandemic’ showed a consistent increase in the prevalence of depressive, anxiety and stress symptoms across four different movement control orders (MCO) in Malaysia,” said the committee in a statement today.

The committee members include MPs Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, Dr Lee Boon Chye, Ong Kian Ming, Dr Mohd Hatta Md Ramli, Dr Kelvin Yii, Sim Tze Tzin and Alice Lau, Selangor exco Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud, Penang exco Dr Norlela Ariffin, Negeri Sembilan exco S Veerapan, Amanah’s Dr Niekmah Adam and PKR’s central committee member Dr Zaliha Mustafa.

“The highest rate of depressive and anxiety symptoms was recorded at 59.2 percent and 55.1 percent respectively, between August and September 2020.

The Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA) recorded a more than two-fold increase in people seeking help related to stress throughout 2020 compared to 2019.

In 2020, one in three calls that Befrienders received were suicidal in nature, as compared to one out of 10 calls in 2018. The government’s psychosocial hotline recorded 37,709 calls between April and September 2020, half of them related to emotional distress worsened by the pandemic and MCO, they said.

The committee said these statistics paint a clear picture of deterioration of mental health over time in our country exacerbated by the failure of the current government to control the spread of Covid-19.

That is why the committee urges the government to implement the necessary policy and law amendments, especially the move to decriminalise attempted suicide.

“Section 309 of the Penal Code, which makes attempted suicide a crime must be repealed as well as charges against those who have survived suicide attempts be dropped.

“An immediate moratorium be imposed against the move to punish suicide survivors from now onwards until law is repealed.

“This is important to make sure survivors are given the necessary treatment and support rather than be treated as criminals. They will then be more willing to come forward for treatment and the stigma associated with mental illness will be addressed more holistically,” the committee said.

It also called for an increase in resources and an expanded mental healthcare system to better manage this crisis.

“Easier and greater access to mental healthcare, through cutting down bureaucracy is important including widespread use of telehealth for services like counselling, psychotherapy, medication management and vocational interventions must be developed.

“Mentari and other community-based services must be empowered and expanded to improve outreach and reintegration of people with mental health problems,” the committee said.

It added that more psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and trained counsellors must be recruited and mobilised from the private sector and civil society to help with the national mental health approach.

“This includes upskilling them to implement a more extensive Mental Health Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) outreach to those in need including our front-liners that are burning out due to prolonged battle with Covid-19.

“They also should be empowered to train more members of the public on the fundamentals of mental health first aid in order to reach a greater segment of the population as well as increase ‘mental health gatekeepers’ or counsellors in every community.

“The government must address the core economic concerns of the people including strengthening the social protection and wage support system to address the current main risk factors of mental health issues,” it said.

It called for cash assistance including the Bantuan Khas Covid-19 under Pemulih to be distributed immediately without the need to wait until August to address the current urgent economic need of the people.

“While it may be easy to overlook the invisible mental health aspect of this pandemic, this unseen crisis may not only worsen the Covid-19, but also may be even more catastrophic to our country’s wellbeing and productivity in the long term,” it said.

If you are feeling depressed or suicidal, or know someone who is, please call the following hotlines:

Agape Counselling Centre Malaysia

Hotline: 03-77855955 or 03-77810800

The Befrienders

Hotline: 03-79568144 or 03-79568145

Life Line Association Malaysia

Hotline: 03-42657995