Mental health problem is expected to become the second most common health problem for Malaysians after heart disease in 2020. Based on the latest National Health and Morbidity Survey, three out of every 10 adults aged 16 and above in our nation will suffer from mental health problem.
This is further illustrated by Mercy Malaysia and the Health Ministry’s Crisis Preparedness and Response Centre. They set up a hotline for those affected by the Covid-19 outbreak, the results were not surprising – 46.8 percent of the calls were from people who have some form of psychological problem.
What many people do not comprehend is the effects of mental health problems can certainly affect economic performance of a country. The cost of mental health problems in the workplace to our economy was estimated at RM14.46 billion in 2018.
All these are in line with the findings of EMIR Research Quarterly Poll for the third quarter of this year, when 72% of Malaysians are worried over their mental health. What’s more, the same poll found Malaysia’s overall National Worry Index (NWI) is at 0.79. This number steps into the area of maximum worry, just one notch below the unhealthy level of 0.80 of maximum worry.
Thus, we can conclude the feeling of worry over socio-economic problems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic-related worries for an average Malaysian has intensified.
The effect of the Covid-19 pandemic has penetrated each level of society from any conceivable angle. Although the purpose of the restrictions on social movement is to protect our citizens from an infection, but it unintentionally puts people at risk of worsening their mental health.
Many non-essential businesses ceased their operations as a result of the Movement Control Order (MCO) that was first implemented in March which saw many citizens being laid off and lost their income. Unemployed people will feel uncertain and insecure, which ultimately undermine their mental health and lead to depression or anxiety.
Moreover, MCO also has a negative impact on people with severe mental illness. Because of anxiety, fear and social rhythm disorders toward the pandemic, people with previous mental illnesses are at greater risk of relapse.
The MCO also forces people to stay at a physical, social distance to avoid infection, so people need to stay at home for a longer period. If one is already living in a toxic home environment, spending more time at home can be stressful and can lead to mental health problems.
Furthermore, a YouGov Omnibus survey in 2019 showed more than 36 percent of Malaysian women had experienced sexual harassment. According to Dr Colleen Cullen, a licensed clinical psychologist, sexual harassment often triggers anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In addition, a recent study published by the Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) found low-income people has a higher rates of mental health problems and chronic diseases. Similar trends were found in mental health data in the study by the Social Inequality and Health Malaysia. The lowest income group has the highest rates of mental health problems among adults and children.
Although it is normal to feel stressed, overwhelmed and nervous during the Covid-19 pandemic, individuals and families feeling stressed or facing mental health problems can attempt to get enough sleep, take part in sports activities regularly, eat a healthy diet and avoid smoking, alcohol and drug abuse. With such self-care strategies which are vital for physical and mental health, a person can take control of his or her life.
Keeping busy but with less social media activity can distract from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety. Meditation practices can help to stay calm in the face of emotional storms.
Despite all the problems, we should focus on what we can change, accept what we cannot control, remain positive all the time and strive to live according to our values.
Meanwhile, employers have the responsibility to ensure the mental health of their employees is well balanced, as most employees spend a third of their day with their job. They can also provide support through programmes such as allowing vacations, supporting virtual social activities, encouraging work-life balance and so on to keep employees physically and mentally healthy.
They should also create a healthy work environment, and provide workplace consultation for their employees to discuss any problems in helping them find their own solutions to problems or better ways to manage them. This would certainly increase worker productivity and reduce costs associated with turnover, absenteeism, compensation and medical claims.
There is also a need to strengthen communication between employers and employees to enhance mutual understanding. When employees are stressed or frustrated, employers need to practise good listening skills.
Our country has a severe shortage of clinical psychologists, so very few people have access to government mental health services. Mental health specialists in government hospitals are also limited. This figure is alarmingly low, with only one psychiatrist per 100,000 people, and in 2018 the public health service employed just 15 clinical psychologists.
Thus, there is an urgent need to increase human resources, including professionals both academic and clinical and infrastructure capacity to meet future needs.
The government can build better mental health networks in the community, carry out community rehabilitation and prevention work, and improve the ability of patients to return to society. A clear example is increasing the number of health clinics and mobile teams to offer home-based services to mental health patients.
In addition, it also needs to strengthen online counselling services by establishing a more integrated, government funded 24-hour acute crisis centre that can communicate directly with regional mental health services. This includes increasing access from remote areas by narrowing the service gap.
Mental health problems in the workplace should be addressed. One suggestion could be to create more consulting positions in government departments such as federal and state agencies to help those under stress.
Jamari Mohtar and Tam Mei Si are part of the research team of EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.