LIVING in a pandemic is hard for everyone, and even more difficult for people living with mental health issues.
The overwhelming range of negative emotions, coupled with the physical and psychological isolation that they may experience in the time of Covid-19 may paralyse those dealing with suicidal thoughts from making that important phone call to someone for help, says psychologist Dr Hariyati Shahrima Abdul Majid.
“The movement control order is especially difficult for people who are suicidal. First, we can appreciate that it is not easy for them to seek help in the first place. Not being able to meet family members, friends face to face, may exacerbate the existing distress they experience,” says Dr Hariyati, who is Malaysian Medical Relief Society (Mercy Malaysia) consultant psychologist and long term volunteer.
Despite the difficulties, reaching out to someone for help is crucial.
“Reach out to someone you trust, that you can rely upon. It may be a close friend, a family member, a teacher or a hotline number. You may initially feel ashamed or embarrassed, but tell yourself that many people out there want to help,” she says.
“If you are not ready yet to make that phone call, make a promise to yourself that you will not do anything that can be harmful right now. Distance your suicidal thoughts from the suicidal action.”
According to Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, there was an average of almost four suicide cases every day for the first three months of this year, more than half of what was reported throughout 2020. Police data showed that from 2019 until May this year, 281 men and 1,427 women had died of suicide in the country. Selangor recorded the highest number of suicide cases between January and May this year with 117 cases.
The 2019 National Health and Morbidity Survey, conducted before the outbreak of the pandemic, recorded close to half a million people in Malaysia suffering from depression. The study also found that 424,000 children were experiencing mental health problems.
Dr Hariyati advises those dealing with suicidal feelings to stay away from substances like alcohol, drugs and medications, and keep out of reach of other physical items, like sharp objects that can be used to harm yourself.
“If possible, tell someone you trust what you are doing – where you have placed these things. Have within your reach telephone numbers of agencies that provide psychological support,” she says.
“If you are having suicidal thoughts, find a way to make your home as safe as possible, or go somewhere that has made you feel safe before. You can call a friend who lives nearby to accompany you, or you can request to stay over at a friend’s house,” she says.
It is very important for us to be available and accessible to our loved ones who are dealing with suicidal thoughts by providing them a safe space to ventilate, to express any thoughts and feelings they have been experiencing, says Dr Hariyati.
We can assist by always checking in on them, accompanying them when they feel emotionally distressed, listening to them empathetically, and asking them questions to show that we are genuinely concerned about their well-being and are open to having conversations with them, she adds.
Guiding friends and family members with suicidal thoughts towards professional help can also make a world of difference, and may potentially save their lives.
“Remember that those who have suicide tendencies wish to end the emotional pain they have, not their lives.”
Medical help available
Psychiatrist Dr Anita Codati, who is from Hospital Tunku Azizah’s Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health (Child & Adolescent), says that it is very important for friends and family to acknowledge and validate the experiences of those dealing with suicidal thoughts, and if needed, to accompany them to the nearest emergency department of a hospital, or alert emergency services.
“Our public hospitals are open 24 hours a day and we have doctors on call in the emergency rooms. Most hospitals have psychiatrists to evaluate and provide the right medication and assistance,” she says.
“Emotional support is important, but in inexperienced hands, good intentions can go wrong. We must be empathetic towards people who are suicidal, and help create conditions in which they feel safe and they can trust,” says Dr Anita.
Dr Anita points out that Malaysia is in the process of decriminalising attempted suicide and there is a lot of ongoing work in the legal field to hasten the process of amending the Penal Code.
“The stance as far as the Health Ministry is concerned, anyone who comes to hospitals will be given medical help. Don’t fear legal repercussions, just come and get help if you are dealing with suicidal thoughts. Doctors will deal with it medically,” she says.
Now is the time for the government to consider a national suicide prevention hotline that would then link to the various pre-existing mental health support hotlines, says Dr Anita.
Like Talian Kasih, Dr Anita suggests that the number of the proposed national suicide prevention hotline be widely publicised in the media and also other forms – for example at fast food outlets, and on the packaging of basic grocery items like rice, sugar, and flour.
“Suicide is often caused by multiple factors, and one way of prevention is to have a strong support system of friends, family, or accredited mental health professionals,” she says.