Mental Health Issues : Need for Greater Awareness, Understanding and Action

This is an important topic that really needs much greater awareness, understanding and follow up action by government officials, members of the public, employers, human resource professionals, leaders of community service club as well as by the relevant local authorities and enforcement agencies. Too little attention is being paid to this matter partly because mental health and mental illness are not topics that people feel comfortable to talk about or even discuss in some depth.

Unfortunately there is still far too much ignorance, shame, guilt and stigma attached to the terms mental health and mental illness. It is not just a local phenomenon but it is a worldwide problem.

A Comparative Worldwide Perspective

In a study carried out by Duke University Medical Centre and in an article published by psychiatrists in early 2006, it was reported that 49% of US presidents suffered from some form of mental illness. Eighteen were found to have suffered a mental illness of some form and ten presidents were affected by episodes while in office!

There are also many cases of members of royal families, prime ministers, ministers, professionals and academics from around the world who have had mental illness.

Situation in India and Asia

In India, Health and Family Welfare Minister, Ghulam Nabi  Azad quoted in late September 2013 from a study by the Indian Council of Medical Research that the rate of psychiatric disorders in children aged between 4 and 16 years was about 12% and nearly one third the population is less than 14 years of age.

Azad pointed out that similar studies from all over the world have indicated that around 15% of children suffer from significant mental health problems, affecting their functioning. Then again, studies from Asia have shown that 10 to 20 % of children and adolescents have significant mental health problems.  All these underline the need to address the shortage of psychiatrists and clinical psychologists.

Mass Shootings in US Cities

We have read, of late, news reports and seen widespread television coverage of mass shootings in a few US cities and campuses. While some may seem to think it is an issue related to the easy availability of guns in that country based on the right to bear arms in their constitution, others are arguing that this phenomenon is really because of mental illness suffered by the perpetrators. In other words they say that there should be more efforts towards offering better mental health services in the states, cities and counties.

Suicides, Bullying in Schools and Problem Gambling in Malaysia

Nearer home in Malaysia, we read about more and more cases of suicides and this involves all classes of people. It is not just labourers or blue collar workers who take their lives. There are also cases of professionals and academics who have resorted to this desperate measure when their situations were not recognised and acted upon with a sense of urgency.

There are also a number of suicides that go unreported. Quite a number of these suicides are gruesome and suggest that these people had no other option. Is that really the case? Recently, we read with horror the case of a family which died in a fire after the death of the father and husband. In the US, a young internet activist, who was being hounded by the authorities, decided to end his life. Then there was also the case of a famous film and television producer who decided to jump from a bridge to end his life.

Difficulty Coping with Fame

Many rock stars and celebrities who found difficulty coping with fame and celebrity status also decided to end their lives. Although surrounded by family, friends and fans, these people were lonely and unable to confide their fears and problems. Some chose not to discuss their problems while others moved away and became reclusive.

The problem seems more pronounced in major cities than in small towns and villages. The pressures of modern living and the challenges associated with job, family and friends seem to overwhelm these individuals. A major service that seems to help these individuals, especially in the Malaysian context, is the listening ear provided by the Befrienders.

In addition, when a person runs amok, a student is repeatedly bullied in school, college, university or an office / factory worker is unfairly treated over a period of time, resentment boils over and explodes. All these episodes seem to strongly suggest that we should do more for mental health and the well being of our citizens.

Malaysian Mental Health Association

It is in this context that I welcome and applaud the efforts of the Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA). It has been at the forefront, for over forty plus years, in recognising the magnitude of the problem and in carrying out a whole range of relevant programmes and activities.  Among its noble objectives are the following: to promote mental health; to participate in the treatment of and research into mental disorders; to co-operate with the government and other agencies on advocacy and other activities relating to mental health; to render assistance to emotionally disturbed individuals; and to provide rehabilitation services for the mentally ill.

The MMHA has also carried out a range of relevant seminars to educate the target publics on a range of subjects. For instance, last year, it organised a well attended one day seminar on problem gambling. This year, it organised a successful national capacity building workshop and collaborated in hosting another in a southern state. Then recently, it organised a half day seminar on stress and mental wellbeing which drew a record attendance of over a hundred participants. All these were carried out in addition to the on – going rehabilitation services being provided at its centre.

Mental Health and Wellbeing

Mental health is not about mental illness. It is an integral part of health and wellbeing. In short, mental wellbeing means that you feel comfortable with yourself. In addition, you feel comfortable with other people. Furthermore, you are able to meet the demands of everyday life.

Mental Disorder

Mental disorder is a generic term to describe various mental illnesses, such as mood disorder, psychotic disorder or anxiety disorder to name a few.

Mental Illness

This is when you are referring to a specific illness with a diagnosis. Some common mental illnesses are bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, OCD, schizophrenia, general anxiety disorder and panic disorder. Mental illness, as such, is a condition that interferes with your thought process ( perception, interpretation and judgement ) emotions and behaviour. Mental illness causes distress and disability or interferes with your daily living and relationships.

Why Don’t I Feel Good?

Many people do not seem to understand depression.  According to an MMHA brochure, depression is the ‘ hidden ‘ disorder. It is not something that is imagined or all in your head. It is a very real medical disorder that affects millions of people each year. Yet, as common as it is, depression is also misunderstood and in many instances not recognised. How could something so common go untreated for so long? The reasons are many.

Schizophrenia

According to an AstraZeneca leaflet, schizophrenia is a chronic and often debilitating brain disease, which is an impairment of thinking in which the interpretation of reality is abnormal. It affects approximately 1% of the population worldwide. It has a genetic component. Environmental factors such as stress may also play a role in its development.

For more information on mental disorders, mental illness and mental health matters, do please feel free to visit the MMHA website at http://mmha.org.my/

Much more needs to be done by governments, concerned NGOs, community service clubs, employers and other relevant bodies, so that the efforts of MMHA are supported by a broad cross section of society. In this way, we can begin the crucial task of spreading greater awareness and understanding among the various interested parties. Those suffering from mental illness deserve our support, compassion and understanding. Let us reach out and do what needs to be done.

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