Mental health issues growing more serious


By Sakini Mohd Said

RECENTLY on her Facebook, a journalist, Zulaikha Rahim, sadly wrote, “Will go through retrenchment, again … Be strong.”

Her message was short and terse but it spoke volumes of the feeling of gloom that enveloped her.

Up to June 2 this year, she considered herself as a member of the M40 (Middle 40 percent income) group but all that changed in a wink when her company retrenched her, along with other staff, to save costs.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March last year, this is the second time this 34-year-old mother-of-one is finding herself without a job. The first time was last year when she had to leave the company she worked for as she was not paid her salary for two months.

To make matters worse, her husband has also been laid off and the couple is now finding it hard to make ends meet what with the house rental, loan repayments and daily expenses weighing them down.

“I feel sad and stressed too when I wonder why we have to face all this. But each time my husband and I look at our (10-year-old) son’s face, we resolve not to give up and to keep on looking for ways to get out of this mess we are in,” she said. 

Currently, Zulaikha is providing freelance editorial services such as writing press releases and doing translation work while her husband recently started serving as a volunteer at a Covid-19 vaccination centre.

“At least he’s getting a daily allowance. We are very grateful for that,” she told Bernama.

The grim reality is that many others are also in the same predicament as Zulaikha. Their lives changed abruptly when they lost their jobs or source of income following the enforcement of the Movement Control Order (MCO).

According to media reports citing statistics by the Social Security Organisation’s (Socso) Employment Insurance Scheme, nearly 100,000 people in the nation lost their jobs in 2020 and this figure did not include traders and hawkers who were badly impacted by the movement restrictions.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Economic Affairs) Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed had previously revealed that Malaysia’s poverty rate had increased to 8.4 percent last year from 5.6 percent in 2019.

And, according to the Economic Action Council Malaysia secretariat, some 600,000 households in the M40 category have slipped into the B40 or Bottom 40 percent income group.

A sudden downgrade in one’s economic or financial status can be a psychologically unnerving affair. It is, therefore, not surprising that a hefty 85.5 percent of the 145,173 calls received by government-operated helplines between March 25, 2020 and May 20, 2021, were from those with mental health issues and in need of emotional support and counselling.

Evidence of these difficult times can be found in the media reports that have been appearing practically every day. Recently, there was a report of a man who locked up his wife and son; apparently, the man was facing a great deal of stress as he had lost his job. Cases of abuse are also on the rise and, sadly, so are suicide cases.   

Without a doubt, 2020 and 2021 would be the most emotionally- and mentally-wracking years for many people, said psychiatrist Dr Mohd Azhar Mohd Yasin, who is attached to Hospital Universiti Sains Malaysia in Kubang Kerian, Kelantan.

“Findings from local studies showed that prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, 20 percent of the people in this country experienced symptoms of stress. However, the rate has now gone up to 38 percent.

“This indicates that the mental health trend of the people is at a worrying level. It is not something that should be taken lightly because stress, if not controlled, can lead to depression which, if left untreated, can trigger suicide,” he said.

Ministry of Health (MOH) data showed that between January and December 2020, a total of 1,080 attempted suicide cases were reported to have received treatment at MOH hospitals but this figure did not include statistics compiled by the Fire and Rescue Services Department Malaysia (JBPM).

JBPM Fire and Rescue Operations Division director Datuk Nor Hisham Mohammad said there has been a steep rise in the number of cases related to attempted suicide in 2020 compared to six years ago. 

He said based on calls received by JBPM, there were 253 attempted suicide cases in 2020, compared with 183 in 2019; 170 (2018); 151 (2017); 146 (2016); and 141 (2015). 

The state accounting for the highest number of suicide attempts between 2015 and 2020 was Selangor with 265 cases, followed by Kuala Lumpur (169), Penang (163), Johor Bahru (136) and Labuan (two). 

“Attempted suicide cases were among the issues that we focused on during a series of meetings held by the top management (of JBPM) recently. In managing such cases, our emphasis is on the need for an immediate response upon receiving the call,” he said.

He added that the department is also looking at efforts to intensify training and providing their officers with basic skills in psychology in order to improve their ability to rescue an individual on the brink of taking his/her own life.      

International Islamic University Malaysia psychiatrist and lecturer Dr Rozanizam Zakaria, meanwhile, said although continuous efforts are being made to enhance access to aid, many people are still either unaware or probably unsure of the aid that they are entitled to.

“Suicide prevention efforts are challenging and have to be done collectively – from the government level to individuals, all have a role to play,” he said, adding that access to mental health services must be enhanced at every level and not just in urban areas or certain segments of society.

Dr Rozanizam, who is a member of the technical committee of MOH’s suicide prevention programme, also called for an improvement of, and better access to, mental health services in terms of human resources, facilities and awareness campaigns. – Bernama

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