There were lots of interesting things happening in the area of mental health last month (October 2021), the highlight of which was the World Mental Health Day that falls on Oct 10 each year.
There was excitement galore with a variety of mental health-related events and webinars.
The online and print media played their part and opinion leaders had the ear of policymakers.
For the corporate sector, it weighed on them that mental health and productivity are closely related.
The announcement that the Attorney-General’s Chambers was recommending the repeal of Section 309 of the Penal Code that criminalises suicide, was met with cries of joy.
Many did not realise that Cabinet must decide on the matter before it is considered by Parliament and then submitted for royal assent.
But it is all good; no one has doubts about the outcome.
It is one of those rare situations where presumed bipartisan support is taken for granted.
Clearly, the psychological decompensation related to the Covid-19 pandemic drew extraordinary attention to mental health issues.
It was previously highlighted in this column that there is apprehension that things will be swept back under the carpet once we move on to the endemic phase of this disease.
We would then be back to the old normal, where mental health does not get the attention it deserves.
I was glad to be proven wrong.
I was recently called to a meeting with the Health Minister, during which he showed great concern about mental health issues.
He spoke with remarkable foresight on mental health symptoms lingering on, even when the dust settles on the pandemic.
We discussed the potential of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) developing later, particularly among frontliners, whom the minister rightly compared to soldiers coming back from war and suffering from the residual effects of their traumatic experiences.
The minister spoke with clarity on the National Strategic Plan for Mental Health 2020-2025 and touched on something that surely must have been very close to his heart – the proposed National Centre of Excellence for Mental Health.
Such a centre could be, among others, focused on specific areas of research, such as child and adolescent mental health issues, and those concerning the growing geriatric population.
It can be uniquely positioned to promote intersectoral collaboration, contributing to thoughts on policies, legislation and discrimination in mental health.
The establishment of the centre will also play a crucial role in crafting and delivering evidence-based interventions during and after emergencies and disasters.
These interventions could be applied even beyond our national borders, as there are disaster-prone countries in our region, creating a perfect opportunity to scale up our humanitarian response.
The corporate sector should also be roped in as a significant stakeholder, as productivity is closely related to mental health; the centre would be an excellent place for research in that direction.
Ultimately, the centre could focus on scaling up community and recovery services in terms of introducing cost-effective prevention measures and community education through the involvement of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
Money and mental health
I had the impression that the next item on the minister’s agenda would be expanded insurance coverage for mental health treatment – the expenditure of which is largely out of pocket for private mental healthcare.
Expanding insurance coverage to mental healthcare services is important because mental health problems increase the risk of medical problems like heart disease.
The business model for private insurers will not necessarily be affected if actuarial calculations are conducted correctly.
Our Health Minister, who was a great advocate of mental health before he joined the Cabinet, was unanimously elected vice-president of the World Health Assembly to be held in Geneva, Switzerland, next May (2022).
In effect, he will be the leading regional representative in this decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Hopefully, he will help facilitate further engagement of civil society with WHO member states in the drafting of resolutions for the World Health Assembly.
In his speech at the recently concluded WHO regional conference, he spoke about Malaysia’s concern on the silent “parallel” pandemic, i.e. the mental health repercussions of Covid-19, thus clearly demonstrating our country’s commitment to tackle this challenge.
The heady days for mental health in the month of October (2021) also ended with a crowning glory.
The long-awaited announcement in the 2022 Budget did not disappoint at all.
A generous RM70 million was allocated towards strengthening counselling, psychosocial programmes, advocacy efforts and activities of mental health NGOs.
The announcement of tax exemptions for out-of-pocket mental health expenditure was music to the ears. A big thank you to the Finance Minister.
There is much work to be done to mainstream mental health, but the road ahead seems less rough with the strong support and leadership shown by the government.
I also take the opportunity to congratulate another ally of mental health: the Star Media Group on their 50th anniversary this year (2021).
Here is wishing The Star another 50 years of success in bringing about a positive impact on the lives of so many Malaysians.
Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj is a consultant psychiatrist, Green Ribbon Group policy advisor and Malaysian Mental Health Association president. 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.