COVID-19 exposes Malaysia’s growing mental health challenges

Photo: leo2014 / Pixabay

Like in many countries, the pandemic has caused a surge in rates of mental health issues in Malaysia. But the country has struggled to recognize the seriousness of mental health disorders or address them on a national scale.

By Umair Jamal

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Malaysia, mental health issues are taking a growing toll across the country.

Like in much of the world, social isolation, economic insecurity and the loss of loved ones have become major drivers of anxiety, depression, stress and other challenges.

But in Malaysia, mental health problems were already on the rise. Government statistics show rates of mental health issues have tripled over the past two decades and the economic impact on the country is expected to surge to US$6 trillion by 2030. According to the 2019 National Health and Morbidity survey, roughly half a million people in Malaysia reported symptoms of depression.

In Malaysia, addressing mental health will require greater awareness and acceptance, as it is still not widely recognized as important in the same way as physical health. As public awareness begins to grow, the government is facing criticism for not doing enough to tackle the problem.    

Photo: magica / Pixabay

Cases of domestic violence, suicides and stress spike in Malaysia

Evidence suggests that mental health issues have spiked in Malaysia since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA) President Dr. Andrew Mohanraj said the organization has seen a “more than a two-fold increase” in people seeking help related to stress since the emergence of COVID-19. He added that stress and anxiety can also cause physical conditions which people often treat as though they’re unrelated to mental health.

Rates of depression and suicide appear to have increased. During Malaysia’s initial lockdown from March 18 to June 9, there were 78 cases of attempted suicide in the country. During the same period in 2019, 64 cases of suicides were reported.

The Befrienders, an emotional support center in Malaysia, said that around 34% of the calls it received between March 18 and May 16 were linked to the impacts of COVID-19. Malaysia’s health ministry said that it received about 43,000 calls on its Psychological First Aid hotline between Match 28 and December 1, indicating a surge in mental health conditions.

Mental health are also likely a factor in rising rates of domestic abuse. During lockdown periods in early 2020, calls to women’s support centers, many of them about domestic violence, increased significantly. Malaysia’s Women’s Aid Organization and the government’s Talian Kasih hotline noted an increase of 44% and 57% respectively in cases after the government announced the first lockdown.

Malaysia’s COVID-19 lockdowns have also had a psychological impact on students. A study published by the International Journal of Environment Research and Public Health reported that the crisis has left students in Malaysia with extreme anxiety. “The main stressors include financial constraints, remote online teaching and uncertainty about the future with regard to academics and career,” said the study.

Despite the clear toll on mental health, Malaysia, like many other countries, has yet to acknowledge that mental health problems require proper diagnoses and treatment.

Is the government doing enough to address mental health?

As the impact of COVID-19 on mental health surges in Malaysia, the government appears unprepared to meet the challenge. The 2020 national budget, for instance, allocated only RM344.8 million (US$85 million) to mental healthcare, or less than 2% of the country’s total budget for healthcare.

The Befrienders’s patron and politician Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye has called for the government to allocate more funds for mental healthcare and work to increase the number of mental health professionals in Malaysia.

“Data from 2018 shows that there were 410 psychiatrists in our country with a national average of 1.27 psychiatrists per 100,000 populations. This is much lower than the World Health Organization (WHO)’s recommended ratio of one psychiatrist per 10,000 population,” Lee said.

Mental health issues must be more widely recognized and accepted in Malaysia

Malaysia’s health minister Adham Baba. Photo: OneNews, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There appears to be little broader discussion of mental health in Malaysia and many people are unaware that mental health conditions are serious medical diagnoses. Adham Baba, Malaysia’s health minister, says the government needs to amend its laws to humanize its approach to mental health. Malaysia is one of three countries in ASEAN that still criminalize suicide and attempted suicide, the other two being Brunei and Myanmar.

“Efforts towards decriminalizing suicide attempts will open up opportunities for patients with depression or suicidal behavior to come forward, without stigma, for treatment and recovery,” he said.

Baba says the health ministry is working to provide psychological support to patients through various programs. However, he admits that support infrastructure for such cases in Malaysia remains a challenge.

As rates of mental health issues have also risen among students in Malaysia, the government has not shared any plans to address the rise. But education could be a key strategy to approach both the lack of awareness and the need for proactive treatment. For instance, making mental health a part of regular curriculum can help prepare students to deal with the challenges they and their peers will inevitably face. Students should be taught in schools that it is okay to seek help. This can also help to normalize a culture of acceptance around mental health. As long mental health challenges don’t receive wider cultural recognition, the true rates of depression, anxiety and other issues may never be known.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15