If you were to pick any time in history to live, there’s no better time to choose than now. No other age has provided such convenience, abundance, health and longevity. And yet, despite having more opportunities and enjoying greater material wealth and comfort, young people today are more susceptible than previous generations to experiencing anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.
Here in Malaysia, suicide rates have been on the rise among young people. According to the 2017 National Health and Morbidity Study, the number of people aged 13 to 17 having suicidal thoughts in 2017 was 10% compared with 7.9% in 2012.
To get a sense of the struggles faced by young people in Malaysia today, I spoke to Kathleeya Narisha Richard, president and co-founder of Connect, a student-led initiative that provides support to young people and offers services to promote emotional well-being.
She agreed that life is relatively more convenient for young people today but said that added pressures leave people feeling isolated and overwhelmed.
“Today, society defines success based on how much financial assets and how many social connections we have, ” she said.
“This causes youth to constantly chase more and more achievements without realising how much of a toll it takes on our mental health.”
Richard also highlighted the stress of comparison via social media, as young people compare themselves unfavourably with others who show off seemingly successful and glamorous lifestyles.
She added: “In Malaysia, we also have difficulties in developing a healthy work-life balance. I have friends who struggle to juggle work and studies and they barely get adequate rest. Despite it being detrimental to physical and mental health, it seems to be the norm in our society.”
Connect was founded by a core team of students to provide a space where young people can open up to each other and receive support without fear of judgement that can sometimes come from older generations. Its members undergo training to develop peer support skills, and there is a strong focus on educating young people on self-care and encouraging people to seek professional help when needed.
Supporting people with suicidal thoughts and feelings can be challenging, in part because of the anxiety that comes with trying to help someone who is considering taking their own life.
Well-meaning advice such as, “Count your blessings, there are people much worse off than you” invalidates the person’s experiences and can make them feel worse. As Dr Edith Eger, author of The Choice (2017) and survivor of the notorious WWII Auschwitz concentration camp, points out, “There is no hierarchy of suffering. There’s nothing that makes my pain worse or better than yours.”
Supporting someone going through any emotional crisis begins by listening without judgement. Our usual approach to solving problems works well when we need to repair the car, but when it comes to emotional pain, providing someone with the space to be heard is crucial.
Richard agreed that listening is a key ingredient, but that it’s often missing when someone is suffering: “People aren’t comfortable with conflict and it’s understandable when they rush to give advice whenever someone opens up. But most of the time, we just want to be heard.
“Being told to ‘think happy thoughts’ or ‘think of all the good things in life’ isn’t helpful – people don’t choose emotional pain; if it was a choice, Malaysia would have no growing mental health problem.”
I was curious to know what Richard thought could be done to bridge misunderstanding between generations to improve communication. She said, “It’s not easy for different generations to understand each other. Times change, challenges evolve, new pressures arise. If we could listen to each other with empathy and patience, I think the older generation will see what we’re struggling with, and perhaps we could learn from their insights how to deal with life’s challenges.
“As young people, we also have a responsibility toward ourselves. We often forget that it’s in our hands to reflect and take action whenever we need to, whether it is learning to say no when exhausted or taking the first step to seek professional help.”
Reaching out and opening up to someone can feel challenging, but it makes a difference to share your experiences if you are going through a difficult time.
Anyone wishing to find out more about Connect and its services can visit their Instagram page @connect.tulc. The team offers online support groups, talks and workshops for young people who want to share their experiences and learn how to take care of their emotional well-being.
If you are going through an emotional crisis and need immediate support, you can contact the Befrienders service nearest to you.
Life can feel unfair and uncertain, and it’s something we all experience at times. Reaching out and having a connection can help us see that we matter, that no pain is permanent, and with the support of others we can overcome our struggles.
Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.
Are you suffering from mental health issues or contemplating suicide? Contact the Befrienders service nearest to you. For a full list of numbers and operating hours, go to befrienders.org.my/centre-in-malaysia.