The extra mental and emotional load women carry


Women in abusive relationships often feel lonely and trapped in their fear. — AFP

Yesterday was International Women’s Day (IWD).

Typically, it is a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.

This month also marks one year since the movement control order was implemented on March 18, 2020.

Given IWD and the one year of various movement restrictions, I thought it would be best to shed light on some of our female heroes out there who have had a particularly challenging time, but are still soldiering on nonetheless.

They are the ones who have held it together for their families, even those suffering abuse and those struggling with the emotional challenges of pregnancy or fertility issues.

Primary carer

Women face a bigger task in maintaining a work-life balance compared to men, even in the best of times.

However, during this pandemic, difficulties in establishing boundaries between household chores and work demands have led to psychological distress in women.

A study by Unicef last year stated that female-headed households have been particularly disadvantaged by the pandemic, with more than one in five of these women reporting that they feel depressed.

If Makcik Kiah was a single mother, she would be experiencing a high burden of care, and possibly unemployment.

She would be dealing with the psychological impact of the pandemic on her mental health and family relationships.

As a mother and traditionally the main carer in the family, Makcik Kiah would also typically be the most involved if her child were to struggle with mental health problems.

One needs to only look at the effects of the pandemic on our youth to know that this is a probability, rather than a possibility.

These include disruptions to their daily routine of going to school and adjusting to the new normal of attending classes from home (or losing out and lagging behind without access to the Internet or a laptop); possible challenges of returning to school after being used to the “pandemic life” of staying home, or being forced to work instead of returning to school to help raise family income; and the negative effects of living most of the day in a virtual world, such as cyberbullying, gaming addiction, loneliness, anxiety and depression.

The statistics prior to the pandemic speak for themself; according to the 2019 National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS), 424,000 children in Malaysia suffer from mental health problems, while the 2017 NHMS found that 10% of teenagers suffer from suicidal thoughts.

However, according to Malaysian Medics International (MMI), there were only 20 registered child psychiatrists in the country in 2018, most of whom were in the Klang Valley.

If Makcik Kiah needed to seek an urgent mental health consult for her child, it would most likely have to be with a private practitioner.

Domestic abuse

It is important for us women to pay special attention to self-care and our own mental health needs, now more than ever in these challenging times.

We can be vulnerable in all sorts of scenarios.

For instance, we have been advised to stay home over the past one year, but home is not necessarily a safe space for everyone.

Women in abusive relationships are particularly vulnerable to feelings of loneliness and being trapped in fear.

Abuse is often used as a crude display of control in the midst of uncertainty, which can be triggered by issues such as financial constraints, health problems or an inferiority complex.

Malaysia saw a spike in domestic violence cases following the MCO last April.

Roughly a week after it was enforced, the Talian Kasih helpline alone saw a 57% increase in the number of calls, though the nature of these calls was varied.

Psychosocial support must include community-led interventions such as women support groups and spiritual support.

These are key in order to help prevent major mental health issues now and after the pandemic.

Childbearing expectations

Finally, there is always the challenge of mental and emotional issues related to reproductive health that are likely to worsen during this pandemic.

Even ordinarily, not receiving adequate support during pregnancy, during confinement and when postpartum depression develops, and the anxiety of dealing with pregnancy loss or being unable to conceive, are all issues I feel women suffer in silence.

Reproductive mental health is one area that I personally feel is not talked about enough, having gone through my own experience of having a miscarriage.

We must do more to get rid of the feelings of shame and guilt, as well as the pressure to conform and meet certain (traditional) standards, such as getting married by a certain age, having children by a certain age, having a certain number of children, and expecting women not to work and be a homemaker or housewife instead.

Finally, I would like to give a little shout-out to my all-female team at the Green Ribbon Group.

We are a small team of four women with a big dream to reach, but are not afraid to start small.

My team reminds me every day that women are limitless and capable of the impossible.

To all the women out there who have struggled with the challenges that I have mentioned: we see you and we hear you.

Please know that you are not alone.

You are our heroes and you inspire us to work towards better mental healthcare in our country.

Happy International Women’s Day, Malaysia. Lots of love always.

Tengku Puteri Iman Afzan is the Royal Patron of the National Coalition of Mental Wellbeing and International Patron of World Mental Health Day 2020. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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