The popularity of mental disorders nationwide and why Malaysians need to talk about mental health
Published on: Thursday, January 09, 2020
By: Jason Hung
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In 2015, I was living with a Malaysian Chinese flatmate in the United Kingdom. Smiling. Greetings. Smart-causal outfits. Everything from her seemed fair. I took several weeks co-living in the accommodation did I realise some abnormalities from her. She would easily get outrageous, emotional and sometimes very hyper. All these “abnormalities” were, at first, covered by her 10 A*s and 4 A*s scoresheets in Malaysia’s IGCSE and A-levels respectively, alongside her good-looking figure – a promising young lady, as many might conclude.

Close to the Christmas break in the same year, I was having a private conversation with her in a flatmate gathering. We touched on and jumped between a range of topics, academically, socially, culturally and otherwise. Somehow we both declared our mental health records, where she had been suffering from bipolar disorder for years due to unmanageable stresses.

Mental health is a significant topic within and beyond Malaysian contexts. For example, data taken from the 2017 National Health and Morbidity Survey revealed that 29% of Malaysians suffered from depression and anxiety disorders, a rise from 12% in 2011. 

To present, Malaysians facing mental health problems might plausibly remain in the closet in household, social or professional settings in order to avoid any taboo and stigma. However, as a chronic social anxiety disordered patient, I understand very well how holding unstable and negative emotions back – without sharing any thoughts and feelings to trusted individuals or beloved – would significantly worsen the mental wellbeing.

Same as my former Malaysian Chinese flatmate, very often do I feel the obligations to live up to parental, teachers and supervisors’ expectations, ostensibly shaping our personal image as positive, able and promising as possible. For over a decade, I hid my stressors and concerns, in addition to feeling guilty whenever I was judged and denounced by others, close or not.

Mental illness is expected to be the second biggest health problem in Malaysia after heart diseases by the end of this year. Nearly 30% of adults, aged 16 or above, face some degrees of mental health problems.

I remember I was having a conversation on mental health with an academic from Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London (KCL) not long time ago. As the academic argued, which I agreed to a large extent, a categorisation between mentally-able and disabled populations is unnecessary to a certain extent. This is because we mostly, if not all, face mental health issues at some points in life. For those who suffer from acute mental illnesses, they might feel life particularly hard, inconvenient and frustrating. That being said, these mentally impaired cohorts have disabilities but are not necessarily disabled.

In a public health seminar held at Harvard Extension School in mid-2018, my coursemates and I wrapped up a discussion that each person living in a society must feel limitations – where there is always a gap between your ideal self and your actual self. Being subject to limitations, mentally or otherwise, is very common. And no one should have a right to judge and criticise those mentally impaired just because their limitations fall into mental contexts but not otherwise.

According to the Public Attitude towards Mental Health survey, 62.3% of mentally ill Malaysians fail to disclose their conditions to others and just over 50% believed Malaysians with such disorders are dangerous and violent. While having mental health discussions with others in a public setting can cause stigmatisation, Malaysians can find alternative communication means to share their mental issues. In recent years, a Facebook group known as Subtle Asian Mental Health, designated for worldwide Asian populations, has given an opportunity for many Asian individuals to share their mental struggles and concerns. Many Asian Facebook users would leave positive and constructive comments and recommend some coping tactics to help others better manage their mental conditions. 

When more Malaysians utilise social media platforms to conduct a mental health conversation, very often can they receive an opportunity to release, part of, their stresses and obtain sympathy from individuals facing similar problems. In the long-term, when sharing mental health thoughts on social media becomes increasingly trending in Malaysia, more people are able to build the awareness and understanding of mental disorders.

Mental illnesses do not, and should not, refer to ‘gila’ (insanity) or ‘sakit jiwa’ (illness of the soul). These are common issues faced by a lot of individuals. By building awareness of the popularity of mental disorders, Malaysian populations can better understand that it is totally okay not to be okay. 

Like many Malaysians, I have a disability, but I am not disabled.

Jason Hung is a visiting researcher at Stanford University, a Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) fellow at Clinton Foundation and a freelance writer at South China Morning Post.

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