Time to break mental health taboo

World Health Organisation’s survey shows Covid-19 disrupting mental health services in most countries

The impact of Covid-19
on society has brought
the importance of
mental health
to the forefront.

Mohammad Medan Abdullah

An important aspect that is often neglected or overlooked is the psychological stress and state of the overall mental health of the people going through the current pandemic.

Coupled with the general reluctance to confront mental health as being a real problem in our society and the outdated social values that treat mental health as a taboo topic in our society, the challenge to find a way forward is nothing short of daunting.

It is time that we start to have a serious conversation about mental health. Time to break the taboo.

Sense of isolation

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the frequent shutdowns and movement controls have only served to magnify the sense of isolation as more people, including grownups and adults, spend more time than ever before on social media as a means to maintain connection and ward off the sense of social isolation.

It is axiomatic that the Covid-19 pandemic has adversely affected the health, safety and daily lives of almost all individuals on the planet.

As creatures of habits and order, humans are sensitive to abrupt disruptions in their lives as engendered by the current pandemic. The norms of socialising and interaction that have prevailed for a long time are no longer encouraged and are in fact prohibited.

Everything has been turned upside down. The psychological stress and knock on effects to biological dimensions and overall health are very little understood, let alone addressed.

Role of social media

The debate is still ongoing whether social media is helping or harming users, in particular frequent users such as the young people and teens. Their lives are being rapidly transformed by social media in the ways they socialise and interact.

Addiction to mobile devices, social media and the digital dimension in general is an undeniable phenomenon. Are these devices healthy or harmful to the mental well-being? Perhaps the divide in this debate can be split along the age difference and between generations.

Despite the misgivings on the plausible negative effects of social media, this article raises the possibility of leveraging on social media and digital platforms as a tool to assist in fostering the development of general wellbeing and to address mental health issues, especially in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It may be useful for people of all ages to understand the benefits and also the drawbacks of social media use during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Scenarios of despair

The sense of despair is real, and must not be ignored. One possible scenario is a family struggling with the worst outcomes of Covid-19 who are in grief due to a death, or job losses as a result of structural changes in the economy, triggered by Covid-19.

We know for a fact that the tourism industry and many freelance sectors including transportation, food and beverage, retails, day workers and so on are among the most badly affected sectors.

Every other day we hear of businesses such as coffee shops or restaurants, tailor shops, among others that have been in the families for generations having to close down due to the lack of activity. The resulting lack or total loss of income will cause immense stresses in the family.

Just a few days ago, a young man was caught pilfering metal sheet claddings on some pipes in Tanjung Kidurong in Bintulu. Apparently, he was laid off from his rigger job due to the shutdowns following the pandemic. Poor guy, he was desperate.

A second scenario is where couples who have been working in the office daily and used to having their personal spaces finding themselves now having to work from home with all the children conducting various activities, homework and schooling from home.

Families may struggle to deal with their changed situation and are in need of some mechanisms to cope with the sense of confinement, changes of routines and feeling of ‘lost space’.

A third scenario could be people struggling to pay their debts and servicing their loans from banks and financial institutions as their jobs or businesses disappear.

Frontliners with all they have been through and seen will need trauma counselling too. Our heroes need places to turn to. They have been dealt a very hard hand during Covid-19.

We need to ensure that the frontliners have full support.  We may know some on a personal basis, maybe our own friends or relatives who will share their stress and struggles.

Many other scenarios can be imagined but all drive the same message home, namely, the insidious and deleterious effects on mental health as a direct consequence of the pandemic.

Helplines and technology solutions

Recognising this possibility, and as part of their ongoing efforts to find holistic solutions, organisations have set up helplines to enable those of their staff who may be in need to reach out for professional help and counselling. For example, Bintulu Port group has made that one of their latest enhancements to their evolving holistic strategy to manage the impact of the pandemic.

The latest technology may be the means to open up a new frontier in mental health support, monitoring and data collection. Mobile devices like cell phones, smartphones, and tablets may give new ways to access help, monitor progress and increase understanding of mental wellbeing.

Examples of technology solutions we hear about are apps such as ‘nuance’ which was sold to Microsoft; ‘Wondertech’ which is considered the top three mental apps in the world with three million voice recordings to help diagnose depression among other mental health issues via artificial intelligence are already on stream.

They can include features for counselling via telecounselling by anonymous psychologists, therapists who can help increase the usage and overcome social taboo. Such a system maintains confidentiality and helps protects all parties, and is therefore ideal for the current situation. It should be something that everyone should seriously think about.

Preparing for recovery with ingenuity

There has to be an end to the pandemic. We have to believe that, and hold on to that hope.

Therefore, we need to start preparing for the return of some semblance of normality as we knew it. For example, visits by tourists from all over the world to places of interest will return; social interactions and other normal activities such as safe reopening of economic fronts and the revival of small businesses and activities that help bring income back to the people are examples of the old norms that we eagerly look forward to.

Our resources may be finite but our ingenuity is not, and should instead be infinite. We need to create green zones and find ways that allows our people to go to work and socialise safely and with confidence. For example, Apps on our mobile devices that measures vitals and health status can be used to start the day before heading to the office, to work or to school by determining if a person should function from home or at the office or the school.

These apps have mental health ‘plugged-ins’ like mood analysers and other intelligent features.

We could include government counsellors on telecounselling for the low-income group and pay the platform providers a monthly fee to have the services ready for the lower income based on an equitable price formula that works for everyone.

As for those who can afford it, we can have premium services for them. All such services would work on the basis of anonymity for obvious reasons and to encourage utilisation.

We know that good mental health leads to good physical health and we need to reduce the pressure on our health system which has gone through tremendous stress due to the pandemic.

We need to be prepared to provide the platforms and services required by deploying digital technology. We can’t leave society behind but instead should become enablers of the future and provide the people with all the tools possible.

Holistic health approach needed

Police see significant increase in mental health calls during Covid-19 pandemic

Holistic health from self to technology, towards improving mental and physical health should be our mindset and approach for the future.

The Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the need to bring holistic health to the forefront. The physical dimension of the disease relates to the need to build the immunity and on how to strengthen our immunity or create a herd immunity effect. The vaccination rollout will greatly assist in this regard.

The impact of Covid-19 on society has brought the importance of mental health to the forefront. For the first time in our lives, we have seen how all areas of lives have been disrupted and needs to be examined. Our personal habits, work habits, travel habits and our living habits need to be changed to prepare for the new normal.

We need to create new infrastructures and prepare existing infrastructures for the future. It is not by any means pandemic proof but will help to minimise its adverse impacts.

From previous articles, I have broken up my discourse on Covid-19 into three approaches. First, a change of paradigm is needed, whereby we must not succumb to despair but instead need to look for opportunities in the crisis that is raging around us.

Second, there is a need to focus on sustainability and to relook at the overall environment that we live in; and now the final expression of my thoughts and view into the future touches on the need to look at holistic health strategies.

Let’s recap the three dimension.

Physical health

Let’s take a look at physical health. Covid-19 attacks the immunity and then the lungs. The latest variant of the virus, Covid-19 Delta is airborne.

How did the virus spread? It started from Wuhan in China whose origins is being seriously debated at this juncture, with articles circulating on a lab leak or from bats to humans at a retain notorious wet market.

We hope to uncover the origins in time in order to have a greater understanding of the origin of the disease. It has spread through air travel when the population from Wuhan travelled for work and leisure in China. And there were visitors or travellers into Wuhan who headed back to where they came from, helping to rapidly spread the virus globally and within a short time.

The impact is a structural change in work habits where work from home has become the norm and while employers and government do their part. The general population has to undergo some form of clampdown and movement restrictions.

Obviously, we need to keep physically healthy. We need to strengthen our immunity. Age old wisdom says a good workout is a panacea. So first thing first is to inculcate good exercise habits, whether at home or in safe public spaces.

So set aside time for exercise or a good daily walk. Get our organs functioning. Get our system moving. The brain secretes dopamine that strengthens us. Exercise is the key to open the tap!

We need to follow the wisdom of elders and traditional systems of medication from a preventive standpoint. Drinking warm water, tea with honey, turmeric and black pepper are what our grandparents’ advice.

There is nothing wrong with such advice. The items are readily available in our society. Black pepper and turmeric according to Ayurveda improves immunity and strengthens our brain, among other benefits.

Also, they act as an anti-depressant. The Indonesians have their “Jammu”, the Chinese have their TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), the native peoples of the world find healings from nature. So everyone have their own systems but all are based on the ideal of holistic health.

Healthy environment

We have talked about preserving nature because our wellbeing depends on it. Going out to the forests and communing with the natural environment has many untold benefits health-wise and emotionally.

So we should get out to the open spaces, breathe fresh air. Be among the flora and fauna. Enjoy the blessings that nature has given us for free.

Keep ourselves as far away from the hospitals as much as we can. The doctors and nurses, who are our frontliners, are physically and mentally exhausted.

I am in contact with friends and relatives in the front line and sympathise with them. Their dedication to their vocation and service to their fellow beings is unmatched. Let us help them by helping ourselves.

As a society, we need to plan for ‘green zones’ where we have spaces for safe and secured activities. One way is to have constantly sanitised safe spaces with the help of technology. There are apps which measure “Vitals” and we can use the apps to guide us before deciding to go out.

As an example, in the case of the workforce and student population, to determine if one needs to work from home or attend classes remotely through home-based learning or attend school or head to the office, such apps can be the effective means to be deployed. We understand that such apps have been used in places like Singapore where it is being trialled with construction, ports and other operations and aspects of daily life.

All forms of public transportation and spaces need to be sanitised to create the confidence and get our society back on track in a safe manner.

Healthy mindset

Finally, the mental health aspect is often neglected but Covid-19 has brought the issue to the forefront and we should not ignore it. A holistic approach on health and the overall wellbeing of people is a superior way to prepare for the future and the next wave of pandemic.

We need to re-engineer not only the physical environment but also our psychological and mental space and our sense of overall wellbeing.

Hitherto, we may have treated mental health as a taboo subject due to our societal norms. It’s time that we have a serious conversation about mental health.

Time to think of developing strategies and action plans for healthy mindsets, overcoming the sense of despair, uplifting the spirit and empowering minds to build a vibrant and prosperous future. That is our birth right.

The writer is the chief executive officer of Bintulu Ports Holdings Berhad (Bintulu Port).