Are Malaysian women facing an increased risk of suicide?

WHILE Malaysia grapples with growing numbers of Covid-19 cases, the underlying toll of the pandemic has hit communities hard as people struggle with job insecurity, loneliness and mental health concerns. The impact of the pandemic on women appears to be particularly harmful, as suggested by the increase of suicide rates among females.

Between January and May this year alone there were 468 cases of suicide reported to the police – an average of three cases a day. This five-month tally is an increase from 631 cases for the whole of 2020 and 609 cases throughout 2019, strongly indicating that the pandemic is likely playing a part in the rising number of cases as economic strain, stress, and isolation are magnified during successive lockdowns.

Police statistics from 2019 to May 2021 show that suicide rates are now five times higher among women compared with men. Of the more than 1,700 cases, 1,427 involved women while 281 involved men. Youth are especially vulnerable, with more than half of recorded suicides involving teenagers aged 15 to 18 at 872 persons, followed by 668 persons aged 19 to 40.

According to the police, the three major contributors of suicide for both men and women were family problems, emotional pressure, and financial constraints.

Sunday Star has approached the police for a detailed breakdown of suicide cases for a better understanding of the situation and at-risk demographics. Although the data at hand is limited, the patterns above suggest that women are at more risk of suicide in Malaysia – but why is this so, and has it always been the case?

Assessing numbers

According to the Health Ministry’s National Suicide Registry (NSRM), which ran from 2007 to 2009, the gender distribution of suicide historically shows a preponderance of males. This is supported by World Health Organi-sation data on Malaysia over the past two decades showing that more men died of suicide compared with women. This is also consistent with global statistics.

But recently, the situation appears to have changed in Malaysia. Not only has the overall rate of suicide increased, but more women have been dying of suicide.

The fact that situations involving suicide are highly stigmatised in our society may mean that numbers are underreported and that published data may not accurately reflect the situation on the ground (See “Many cases of suicide go unreported” opposite.)

Nevertheless, the rising number of women who die by suicide warrants a deeper look as it indicates that women are a group overwhelmingly affected by the pandemic.

Contributing factors

Malaysia is not the only country to see this pattern of behaviour since the outbreak of Covid-19 last year. In 2020, overall suicide rates in Japan went up. The rates among Japanese women in particular rose by nearly 15%, while rates among men dropped slightly. South Korea has also seen a similarly sharp rise of suicide deaths among women, particularly young women.

At present, there is no data from Malay-sian research shedding light on factors influencing the change in gender difference in relation to suicide, but Dr Anita Codati says that we may be able to draw some insight from trends in Japan and South Korea as some of the same factors may apply.

“It could be that women are more affected by psychological distance and as a result, may develop more feelings of loneliness and isolation and experience poor sleep and poor motivation.

“Many women may have found themselves unemployed due to the pandemic and have experienced loss of income to support their families,” says the psychiatrist from the mental health department of a local hospital.

Across the world, the Covid-19 pandemic will send 47 million more women and girls below the poverty line, says the UN Women agency. According to Khazanah Research Institute (KRI)’s 2018 study, The Malaysian Workforce: A Changing Landscape, nearly 30% of employed women in Malaysia are sales and service workers. And this industry is among the worst-hit by the pandemic now, seeing among the highest retrenchment rates and salary cuts according to other labour reports.

The International Labour Organisation found that among informal economy workers in Malaysia who are significantly impacted by the crisis, women are overrepresented in high-risk sectors – wholesale and retail trade, manufacturing, accommodation, and food services.

Furthermore, inequitable distribution of care and household chores on women can also contribute to feelings of depression and heightened anxiety.

According to KRI’s 2019 Time To Care: Gender Inequality, Unpaid Care Work and Time Use survey, Malaysian women assume more responsibility for unpaid care despite working almost the same number of hours as men in paid work – this leads to a “double burden”.

Many global studies also highlight how domestic work and childcare has increased significantly during the pandemic, and it is women who mostly end up bearing these additional burdens, often due to skewed social structures and gender roles.

“The lack of human connection is a threat to everyone’s mental health but women are often expected to shoulder the burdens of greater job insecurity compared with men. And there are also the disparities of the division of labour in caring for school age children at home and running households during the work-from-home era,” explains Dr Anita.

She adds that women are also at higher risk of suffering from domestic violence and sexual assault, crimes which have seen a rise in cases since the first movement control order was implemented in March last year.

“These factors may make them more vulnerable to mental health issues which may contribute to a higher risk of suicide,” says Dr Anita.

A 2017 Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia study, Gender Differences And Psychological Factors Associated With Suicidal Ideation Among Youth In Malaysia, found that depression and loss of motivation as components of hopelessness were the predictors of suicidal ideation among females. Although women in general have more suicidal thoughts, across the world more men die by suicide – a situation referred to as the gender paradox.

A significant difference in why women were less likely to die of suicide before the pandemic was because women’s problem- solving strategies favour consulting peers for assistance, and they were more ready to accept help compared with men, who place a higher value on independence. So the prolonged lack of interaction and isolation from support networks during this pandemic may have had an adverse effect on women’s coping mechanisms, not allowing them to communicate as easily as they once could.

To maintain positive mental wellbeing, everyone is advised to keep in contact with friends and family and to reach out to loved ones who may be feeling particularly lonely during these tough times.

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