MANY Malaysians are finding it difficult to cope with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, isolation and family problems, which have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
But thanks to efforts from non-governmental health organisations and volunteer groups, there is now a greater awareness about the issue and the stigma of reaching out for help is slowly eroding.
This can be seen through the increase in the number of calls to volunteer support group Befrienders Johor Baru.
According to its president Danny Loo, calls to Befrienders Johor Baru totalled 1,837 for the first six months of the year, despite the centre having to suspend operations twice because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
He said the suspension of service was to ensure the safety of the volunteers.
“The first was for 18 days between Jan 15 and Feb 3, while the second time was for 46 days between May 5 and June 19.
“When we restarted operations on June 20, we saw an increase of about 17% in the number of people calling the centre,” he said.
He noted that Befrienders Johor Baru received a total of 301 calls in the first two weeks after resuming operations in June.
“In April, we were receiving an average of about 18 calls a day but in June, the number of calls went up to an average of about 21 a day.”
He added that volunteers were trained to ensure such callers received the help they needed.
The pandemic has no doubt contributed to a rise in people experiencing mental health problems and calling Befrienders Johor Baru.
For instance, in 2019, the centre received 5,469 calls, but this shot up to 7,749 last year, an almost 42% increase.
“The most common problems they face are loneliness and isolation, family issues and work problems,” said Loo.
The pandemic has brought some unique challenges to the volunteer group, he said, but it has not stopped them from doing their best to aid those seeking a friendly ear.
“Apart from having to suspend our operations twice, we also have to arrange for our volunteers to be in separate rooms while on duty at the centre as per standard operating procedure.
“Travelling to the centre was also difficult for some of our volunteers as they needed to get letters from the authorities,” he said, adding that the centre currently has about 62 volunteers.
Getting public attention
Apart from attending to such calls, Befrienders Johor Baru is also actively spreading mental health awareness among the public.
Its publicity director Justin Toh said the group had been hosting at least one online talk every month, presented by mental health professionals who aimed to raise awareness on specific topics.
“Mental health awareness has increased since the pandemic began and many want to know more about the issue to not only help themselves cope but also their loved ones. “As such, we have increased the frequency of these talks.
“While we cover a wide range of mental health topics, the ones that are most popular and receive a good response from the public are on depression and anxiety,” he said.
He added that the talks were normally conducted on social media platforms such as Facebook Live.
“While there is an increase in awareness, mental health issues are still a taboo topic for some and we hope to do more to remove the stigma,” said Toh.
Sparking joy in life
Also championing mental health awareness is an initiative dubbed the “Dr J” project where “J” stands for Joyfulness.
Dr J’s person-in-charge and secretary Carter Lee said the project was founded to help the public, especially Johoreans, cope with the social impact of Covid-19.
“Dr J is a project under the Malaysia Community Service Alliance, which is a non-governmental organisation.
“We started the initiative as a way to help the many people who have been affected by the pandemic.
“We plan to provide more holistic support in the future, including in terms of career development, financial aid and setting up food banks.
“As a start, we are focusing on increasing awareness of mental health because it is an issue that has been affecting people the most,” he said.
Lee said Dr J had conducted at least four online talks about depression and anxiety since July this year.
“We had our first online event on July 13 on the topic of depression, where close to 100 individuals participated.
“We later conducted similar events in other languages.
“So far, we have had such talks in English, Bahasa Malaysia and Mandarin,” he said, adding that they plan to also have Tamil speakers to reach out to more people.
Lee hopes the initiative will offer a ray of hope to people and let them see that there are many willing to help.