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The paradox of mental health: Malaysia’s post-pandemic journey

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

OCTOBER 14 — In the poetic words of French physician Philippe Pinel, “It is an art of no little importance to administer medicines properly: but, it is an art of much greater and more difficult acquisition to know when to suspend or altogether to omit them.”

Just as Pinel advocated for compassionate treatment of the mentally ill in the 18th century, World Mental Health Day which fell on October 10 serves as a poignant reminder of the intricate balance and care that our minds necessitate.

The human mind is an embodiment of awe and wonder. It charts courses of logic, concocts tales of grandeur, but also cries tears of despair.

This duality — of being astoundingly powerful yet profoundly vulnerable — is the quintessential paradox that characterises our mental health.

Our minds, teetering on the cusp of reason and emotion, stands as testament to the capacity for human resilience, creativity, and vulnerability.

Malaysia stands at a crossroads, with a historic opportunity to reshape its mental health narrative. — IStock.com/AFP pic
Malaysia stands at a crossroads, with a historic opportunity to reshape its mental health narrative. — IStock.com/AFP pic

Malaysia stands at a crossroads, with a historic opportunity to reshape its mental health narrative. — IStock.com/AFP pic

Mental health in Malaysia: A glimpse into prevalence and awareness

In Malaysia, the landscape of mental health is evolving. Pre-pandemic, the World Health Organisation noted that nearly 30 per cent of Malaysians experienced some form of mental health issue.

However, the post-pandemic environment tells a more somber tale. Isolation, economic downturns, and an array of disruptions have arguably heightened these numbers.

There is an increase in reported anxiety and depressive disorders during lockdown periods, underscoring the urgent need for comprehensive mental health strategies.

Yet, there is an air of hope. A noticeable shift in awareness is occurring, as schools, workplaces, and communities progressively engage in conversations about mental health.

Digital platforms, influencers, and grassroots initiatives are illuminating the importance of mental wellness, fostering a more informed and empathetic society.

The enduring stigma and the changing tide

Despite these positive shifts, stigma remains an adversary. Traditionally, mental illnesses in Malaysia, as in many parts of the world, were shrouded in misconceptions.

Associating mental conditions with weakness or spiritual deficiency has historically hindered open conversations.

Yet, in the face of adversity, Malaysia is slowly but surely breaking these chains.

The post-pandemic world, with its collective experience of vulnerability, has expedited the breaking of this silence. As societies faced shared anxieties, the universality of mental health challenges became more evident, turning whispers of compassion into collective calls for change.

Public health, policy and priority

Mental health, once a peripheral concern, is now at the forefront of public health agendas. Malaysia’s strategic frameworks, like the National Strategic Plan for Mental Health, emphasise early intervention, community-based care, and de-stigmatization.

However, while policies have been drafted, the challenge lies in effective implementation, ensuring that the framework does not remain mere words on paper.

One could hypothesise that the nation’s intensified focus on mental health is an outcome of the pandemic’s wake-up call. As mental health disparities became more evident, it catalysed policymakers to reevaluate and reinvent approaches, placing mental well-being as a cornerstone of public health.

The mind: A beautiful enigma

In its architecture, the mind is an enigma — a delicate interplay of synapses, emotions, and experiences. It is an organ of profound contradictions, capable of feats of brilliance, yet susceptible to the faintest whisper of doubt. The beauty lies in its ability to be both an analytical machine and a vessel of profound emotion.

To understand its fragility is not to see it as weak but to recognise the strength in vulnerability. Just as Pinel advocated for a humane approach to mental health centuries ago, today’s world — scarred but hopeful — reiterates that call.

Malaysia stands at a crossroads, with a historic opportunity to reshape its mental health narrative. As citizens and policymakers, the duty rests upon us to ensure that mental health is not just an afterthought but a priority.

The mind, in all its splendour and vulnerability, deserves nothing less.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.