In my column last month on teaching children about mental health in school, I wrote about the suicide of a nine-year-old girl.
Since then, we have read about – or in some cases, seen – at least three incidents of suicide.
Significant efforts have been made by various stakeholders across the board to decriminalise attempted suicide in our country.
I spoke about the need to do so on World Suicide Prevention Day in September 2020 at the opening of The Orchid Clubhouse – the first activity and crisis management centre at the Mental Illness Awareness and Support Association (Miasa).
The Green Ribbon Group, which I co-founded earlier this year (2021), also released a statement on April 5 (2021) on the need to review legislation and rebuild our current systemic responses towards suicide attempts.
I wish to reiterate some of the points that I have made, for suicide prevention must always be ongoing.
Help, not hinder
First, decriminalising suicide must be seen as part and parcel of shifting our response to mental health towards one that is more health- and social-based.
It must also be done carefully, with the understanding that a person who attempts suicide is likely to be mentally distressed.
Indeed, 2020 was a very challenging year.
This year (2021) is also shaping up to be just as challenging, if not more so.
Data from the Health Ministry is indicative of the upward trend of mental health issues as a result of the current Covid-19 pandemic.
Out of 145,173 calls received from last May (2020) to this May (2021), 85.5% were related to mental health issues such as acute stress, anxiety, depression, abuse and suicidal behaviour.
There were also 1,080 cases of suicide attempts from January to December 2020.
The development of a national registry system for cases of suicide and fatal injury, as stated in the National Action Plan for Mental Health over the next five years, is most timely.
The move to decriminalise attempted suicide thus requires urgent and in-depth consideration.
Second, throughout my mental health journey, I have always felt that stigma is the biggest hurdle that we face.
It must be said more and more that if we continue to persist in penalising those who have resigned themselves to leaving this world to escape the misery in their lives, we will only continue to perpetuate the stigmatisation of mental health.
Those who attempt suicide must be given a helping hand.
Paradoxically, attempted suicide being seen as a crime only discourages such individuals from seeking help.
Without a doubt, there must first be sustainable and viable mechanisms in place for individuals who attempt suicide to access mental healthcare and be suitably evaluated to allow the law to be applied.
Fortunately, in most cases, the implementation of the relevant law in our country has been tempered with mercy.
But while we work towards revising relevant legislation to fight against stigmatisation and decrease the rate of suicide, we need to also increase our efforts in building a nation where individuals can seek help for their mental health challenges without fear or hesitation.
This brings me to my third and final point: mental health is the responsibility of all, and we need to get the message across that suicide is largely preventable.
Remember, it may not always be easy to identify who needs help as many continue to go through the motions of living, while being dragged down by the burden of psychological distress within them.
We may be able to do only so much, but even that little care and connection may make a world of difference to those who are alone in their agony.
The Green Ribbon Group, in collaboration with the Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA), will sponsor anyone who is keen to complete the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) programme, which includes detecting and assisting someone with suicidal behaviour.
Connectedness is crucial to those vulnerable to suicide, and reaching out to them and providing them the support and companionship they direly need could be lifesaving.
Every one of you reading this column can contribute in some way, however big or small, in raising awareness for suicide prevention.
United we stand, divided we fall.
I remain humbled and inspired by all your efforts.
Editor’s note: This column will be taken over by consultant psychiatrist Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj, who is the Green Ribbon Group policy advisor and Malaysian Mental Health Association president beginning July 2021.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.