The year has barely started and there are already interesting national developments with psychological dimensions.
The Chinese New Year celebrations, though slightly muted as in the recent past, was no less meaningful in bringing Malaysians closer together.
Family gatherings during festive occasions, such as Chinese New Year reunion dinners, can be beneficial in many ways.
For example, these gatherings can create and reinforce strong familial bonds, which may lead to increased cooperation, understanding and trust between family members.
They can also provide an opportunity for family members to learn and share valuable information about themselves and each other.
On the other hand, from a psychological perspective, family reunions can also be uncomfortable for some.
There is a chance that familial rivalries may be further exacerbated during such gatherings, leading to unpleasantness.
Even if that is not the case, family members may be overwhelmed by the amount of stress experienced during these events, causing feelings of anxiety and exhaustion.
This is especially true when young people are questioned on academic achievements, marital prospects, and even body image.
Invariably, relatives tend to ask well-meaning, but intrusive personal questions.
A good way to handle such a situation is to explain your boundaries politely, but firmly.
For example, you could say: “I appreciate your interest in my life, but I prefer to keep some things private.”
However, in an Asian culture such as ours, it may be easier said than done.
You could also redirect the conversation to a different subject to avoid the uncomfortable questions.
Additionally, it can be helpful to practice calming activities before these anticipated questions to help manage stress or anxiety.
The best way to maintain good mental health and emotional stability during family gatherings is to practice self-care.
This can include taking time to rest and relax, or engaging in calming activities such as meditation or exercise.
It is advisable to take a calculated approach in avoiding conflict with family members.
Additionally, it can be helpful to stay connected with friends and loved ones outside of the family gathering.
This may even be the support network to turn to when feeling overwhelmed.
If conflicts do occur despite such precautions, it is important to remain open-minded and take the time to discuss the issues in a respectful manner.
It can help to avoid placing blame and focus instead on finding common ground.
Additionally, it can be helpful to take some time for yourself afterwards to process any residual negative emotions.
To maintain bonding, it can be helpful to be determined to have only positive interactions and to avoid bringing up past grievances.
It is also important to remember that family celebrations are a special time to enjoy being with loved ones and can be a rare opportunity to have delightful conversations and create meaningful memories.
It isn’t only those gathering for family reunions who have been under stress; those in politics are likely also facing significant psychological pressure.
To maintain mental well-being, it is important to take some time away from the public spotlight to rest, recuperate and recharge.
It is also helpful to consciously prioritise self-care, by engaging in activities that are enjoyable and meaningful to the individual, such as spending time with loved ones.
A support network of trusted friends and family is crucial, or at times, even the help of mental health professionals who can offer advice from an objective point of view.
It is important to be aware of the mental health benefits that come with working on meaningful causes or sticking to important core values, as this can help to provide motivation and resilience in the face of criticism or challenges.
A point person
Just last week (January 2023), the National Coalition for Mental Wellbeing (NCMW) hosted a well-attended national conference with the theme “Preserving Mental Health in a Crisis”.
One of the interesting topics discussed was leadership in mental health.
Leadership in mental health is about advocacy, connection and collaboration, which builds upon the experiential, philosophical and scientific approaches to mental health.
It attempts to bring together diverse stakeholders to identify, develop and implement evidence- based solutions to mental health needs.
This includes vision and strategy, shared decision-making and sustainable engagement for attitudinal change towards mental health issues.
In this context, NCMW reaffirmed its call to have a representative for mental health in the Dewan Negara to ensure that the voices of mental health organisations can be effectively heard.
This designated individual, ideally a content expert, can help ensure that the rights and needs of those with mental health issues are given due consideration, by raising awareness of mental health issues in Parliament, debating on policies to better address the needs of those affected and advocating for the mental well-being of all Malaysians.
Such an individual can also help to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues and help create an environment where people can get support they need without hesitation.
NCMW chairperson Siti Subaidah Mustaffa was reported as saying: “It is important that we have a mental health advocate in the Dewan Negara.
“We need to have a resource within the senate to focus on mental health.
“Otherwise we are operating in silos and each group – each NGO and government agency – has its own agenda without looking at the big picture.”
This call for representation is also on the premise that mental health cannot be viewed from a purely medical perspective.
While the Health Ministry is responsible for mental health programmes, there are many other determinants of mental health that require attention, understanding and action to ensure the best outcomes for mental health in the country.
Mental health involves factors such as access to education, employment, housing, interpersonal relationships and social connectedness.
Without such considerations, mental health services and programmes may fail to adequately address not only the needs of individuals who suffer from mental health issues, but also societal well-being in general.
Mental healthcare evolution
Historically, there have been a number of major reforms in mental healthcare.
One of the first was the introduction of the Lunacy Act of 1845 in the United Kingdom, which marked the start of organised care of mental illness, moving away from criminalisation and institutionalisation of mentally ill people, and the beginning of focused research in the field.
Over the years, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Mental Health Action Plan focused on increasing access to mental health treatments and services, improving mental health safety and reducing stigma associated with mental illness.
Other significant reforms to the field of mental healthcare include the enactment of the Mental Health Care Bill in 2017 in India that guaranteed the rights of people with mental illness and improved access to mental health services; the implementation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme in Australia in 2013; and the launch of the Mental Capacity Act in the UK in 2005 to protect those who lack capacity to make decisions.
As early as 1949, the United States had established the US National Institute of Mental Health to provide resources for research into mental health and illness.
Just last year, we too had set up a National Centre of Excellence in Mental Health in Malaysia.
The Mental Health Act of Malaysia 2001, although wanting in some areas, is a remarkable piece of legislation.
It includes the recognition of a person’s right to dignified and humane treatment of their mental health condition, the introduction of statutory measures to protect the rights of persons with mental illness, and guidance on when compulsory treatment can be applied.
Additionally, the Act outlines the procedures for court-ordered psychiatric examinations and criteria for determining the mental competency of individuals, including those who have attempted suicide.
Our mission in Malaysia must be for a truly multidisciplinary approach in mental health service that can help to ensure comprehensive and effective care for individuals with mental health issues.
Besides psychiatrists and mental health nurses, there is a clear role for other professionals in mental health, such as clinical psychologists, counsellors and hypnotherapists.
With adequate upskilling, the neighbourhood general practitioner (GP) or company panel doctor should also be able to offer appropriate support.
In addition, mental health advocates, service users and their families should have an important role in providing insight into implementation of mental health services.
Information about their experiences, as well as their expectations, can be invaluable.
It is essential to hear the voices of all stakeholders in the national mental health landscape so as to ensure the provision of the best possible care for those affected.
Prof Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj is a consultant psychiatrist, the Malaysian Mental Health Association president and director of Taylor’s University’s Impact Lab on Mental Health and Wellbeing. For more information, email email@example.com. 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.