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UM mental health study on Nabawan residents
Published on: Thursday, October 05, 2023
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Dr Somiah interviewing respondents from Pekan Nabawan.
Kota Kinabalu: The mental health of men and women in remote Nabawan differs greatly from that of urban communities in Sabah, according to a preliminary research by Universiti Malaya (UM) anthropologist and Sabahan native, Dr Vilashini Somiah. 

“Even within rural poor communities like that of Nabawan, class distinctions between different groups of communities still exist (between poor and poorer),” Dr Somiah said in a statement, here, Monday.

The research titled “The Mental Health Struggles and Other Survival Issues of Indigenous, Rural Sabahans Post Covid-19: A Gendered Analysis” is under the funding of UM’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS).

The research is working on recognising and highlighting the life­ experiences of indigenous Sabahans living in rural areas and their ongoing struggle with mental health issues, while also paying attention to the daily survival practices of the men and women of the district of Nabawan with mental health issues post Covid-19.

Dr Somiah said these different classes would mean scarcer access to already limited medical resources depending on your gender, age, disability and extremities to geographical locations (many villages scattered throughout Nabawan are inaccessible by commercial vehicles especially during monsoon seasons). 

“Following this, any ongoing mental health policies and aid in place to help residents of Nabawan can only be offered during scheduled monthly visits and for those within the proximity of Nabawan town itself. 

“The observation that has come out from this study is that many men and women living in the most remote parts of the district have indicated suffering from traumas of disruptions to livelihood, loss of physical health and the subjugation of medical information about Covid-19. 

“These traumas have impacted the mental health of both men and women in remote Nabawan in ways that differ greatly from that of urban communities in Sabah,” she said. 

While medical aid continues to be a struggle in the most remote parts of Sabah – owing in part to the lack of medical practitioners stationed in these places and the difficulty of accessing these indigenous sites as well – respondents of this study have articulated to Dr Somiah two key positions. 

“Firstly, they are in desperate need of any form of medical counselling to help them deal with these ongoing traumas as they fear, if unattended, will cause further deterioration of their physical health. 

“Secondly, paradoxically, they also experience a complete distrust of the medical system of which respondents have said to not favour rural residents and, thus, improved health communication to this community is also needed,” she said. 

Since July of this year, assisted by UM master’s student Lauren Brodie Tsen, Dr Somiah has been researching and paying close attention to the numerous impacts of Covid-19 on mental health, livelihood and general wellbeing of rural communities from Kudat, Kota Marudu, Ranau, Kundasang, Bundu Tuhan before finally ending her study in the interiors of Nabawan where she has been stationed for the last two weeks. 

The research, which is multi-sited, has required her and her assistant to travel throughout these places by road in order to truly understand and experience the resilience, survivability, and nuanced lived experiences of indigenous persons in Sabah.

This study is currently at the completion of approximately 30 in-depth interviews with residents scattered throughout Nabawan including villages located in the borders of Tongod and Kalimantan. 

While Dr Somiah is currently working on interrogating state medical policies on mental health particularly those in relation to rural Sabah in Kota Kinabalu, she will return to Nabawan in the near future.





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