WHEN homemaker Rania*, 36, started hearing whispers in her ear and experiencing visual hallucinations last year, she realised that her mental health had deteriorated amidst the crushing Covid-19 pandemic.
(*Names have been changed to protect privacy.)
The mother of four, who is also a person with disability, has been living with depression since she was a child but the condition worsened in 2020 due to financial stress coupled with deteriorating physical health due to a chronic illness.
“I realised that I was severely depressed when I started hearing voices and would often catch sight of ‘things’ passing by. I would have mood swings and I was easily irritated by loud noises, like from my kids. Something would always feel wrong. People aren’t even talking about me but I would feel that they were saying bad things about me, ” she says.
At first, Rania did not know what to do; then she decided to mention the problem to the doctor treating her chronic illness.
“During one of my routine checkups, I told the specialist what was going on and I was immediately referred to a psychiatrist clinic. Since then, I have a follow-up every month at the clinic and I’m also taking four different medications to treat my mental health, ” she says.
But at first, she did not feel much better and earlier this year Rania overdosed on her medication. Fortunately, her husband found her in time and rushed her to the hospital.
“I really wanted to kill myself, but praise be to God, I have been given a chance to live until today. The doctor also helped by not categorising my case as a suicide attempt because then it would become a police case, ” says Rania.
She says her stress tripled during the pandemic as her health declined, causing her to be hospitalised on and off just as she is also struggling financially and unable to provide for her children’s online learning.
“I have three children in school and one in kindergarten but we only have one phone. And since I’m always in and out of hospital, my children are getting left behind in their studies. Some teachers even say that if they don’t come on Google Meet, then their attendance will not be counted.
“It saddens me because I really I want my children to excel in their studies, ” she says.
While Rania is receiving welfare aid and occasional help from NGOs, she still struggles to pay rent and other bills, some of which have not been paid in months.
“I don’t want to depend on aid from NGOs and do reject many offers. I am trying to increase my online sales (of a supplement) so that I have enough money to feed my children.
“Once, my kids were so hungry they stole bread from a shop. That was my wake-up call, I vowed to never let it happen again and I’m working as hard as I can despite my situation, ” she says.
What has really helped Rania manage her mental health is being on medication, going for regular therapy and keeping herself busy with her online business as well as calling close friends to chat.
“So far, only a few friends really understand how I feel. I call them and talk about any topic that can make me feel happy and temporarily make me forget my problems.
“As far as my family is concerned, only my husband knows about my depression. But he says things like ‘So have you taken your crazy pills today yet?’, which does not help, ” says Rania, who receives remote counselling from an NGO.
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For mental illness survivors like herself, Rania says that having to face people’s insensitivity and ridicule is harmful to self-esteem, making it harder for them to recover.
“Once I was at the psychiatrist’s clinic for my appointment and there was a man repairing a light. He got a call on the phone and he must have been asked where he was because he answered, ‘I’m at the crazy clinic’. That made me feel down and embarrassed – he did not think about how his words made those around him feel.
“People tend to label anyone seeking psychiatric help as crazy but we do have hopes to recover and live normal lives, ” says Raina.
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For 20-something sexual abuse survivor Lara*, getting professional help is what has helped her cope with her trauma and depression.
“It has helped me to manage my emotions and attain some sort of normal life. I was even able to hold a good job and have a loving relationship with a partner.”
Being in lockdown, however, has triggered her anxiety and depression again.
“Being alone at home unearthed all my buried memories, emotions and fears. I kept remembering the times when I was sexually violated as a child and I would get panic attacks. I also started doubting myself and feeling depressed. ”
She reached out to helplines and friends to try and cope with her emotions: “They are helping me to deal with my feelings but I can’t wait for life to return to normal, ” she says.
Being stuck at home during the movement control order has also been stressful for 17-year-old Rizal*.
“I’m in Form Five now and will be sitting for my SPM, but I really felt lost when I started Form Four last year. I couldn’t follow what my teacher was teaching online and it was stressing me out.
“I was so scared I would fail my exams. I tried to talk to my teacher and friends but it’s hard online. It made me feel really helpless and depressed, ” he says.
It did not help that his parents had also started arguing a lot at home.
“I knew things were getting difficult for us – my father had a pay cut and my mother has not been able to go to work at the hotel because of Covid-19. I just wish they wouldn’t fight in front of me and my younger sisters, ” he says, adding that they were scared their parents would get a divorce.
Things became so overwhelming that Rizal started thinking about how good it would be to just end it all: “I started thinking of ways to do it and searched for videos online. But my class teacher noticed that I was struggling and started to talk to me about it.
“She really helped me to cope and also referred me to a counsellor.”
So now whenever he gets down, he tries to do some of the coping exercises that he has learnt.
“And if it gets really bad, I know I can talk to my teacher, ” he says.
Like Rizal, Rania is determined not to give in despite facing so many hardships in life.
“My hope for those who deal with mental illness or stress is for them to be strong, to fight it with prayers, effort and acceptance.
“Turn to God, pour out all of your troubles in your prayers. If your family doesn’t care about your condition, just let it be and let go of the toxicity. Just tell yourself that they have yet to realise what mental illness is.
“If you trip and fall, don’t stay down. Rise up!” she says.
Those suffering from problems can reach out to the Mental Health Psychosocial Support Service at 03-2935 9935 or 014-322 3392; Talian Kasih at 15999 or 019-261 5999 on WhatsApp; Jakim’s (Department of Islamic Development Malaysia) family, social and community care centre at 0111-959 8214 on WhatsApp; and Befrienders Kuala Lumpur at 03-7627 2929 or go to befrienders.org.my/centre-in-malaysia for a full list of numbers nationwide and operating hours, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.