Mental health: Time will heal us all


FINALLY, we are enjoying some semblance of life before Covid-19.

Now that Malaysia is transitioning towards endemicity – with businesses and activities resuming – experts say people will generally have better mental health with more freedom.

But after two years of movement control orders and uncertainty about the coronavirus, some have sustained deeper emotional scars from the pandemic that will take longer to recover than others.

According to Befrienders Kuala Lumpur, the number of people reaching out to its emotional support helpline has continued its upward trend over the past three years.

From an average of 99 contacts a day in 2019, the number of calls, emails and other communication has jumped to 121 a day last year.

“A total of 44,453 calls, emails and face-to-face meetings were recorded last year.

“This is a 10% spike from 2020. If compared to before the pandemic in 2019, it is a 23% hike,” Befrienders KL publicity director Ardy Ayadali tells Sunday Star.

As for those who expressed suicidal intentions, the percentage remains about the same at 33% to 34%.

“The number of requests for help is increasing as we have a rising number of contacts developed over the years,” he adds.

The issues brought to light were mostly tied with psychiatric and mental health issues like depression.

“We also noticed an increase in family related issues, as the pandemic caused a lot of disharmony and conflict in families,” Ardy highlights.

But he agrees that the lifting of restrictions definitely elicits a happy sigh from many.

“It’s always a relief as things are somewhat heading towards the normalcy that we remembered.

“A lot of people are feeling pandemic fatigue from the prolonged exposure of the MCO and Covid-19,” he adds.

But still, there is no denying that the pandemic has left its mark on our physical and mental health.

“Many are still reeling from the scars of the pandemic, especially those who have lost loved ones.

“Dealing with premature death, and the guilt associated with it can be traumatic, and some might live their whole life with that.

“There are also some, especially the elderly, who have been in isolation for so long that they feel trapped in their comfort zone and are fearful of going out even after the restrictions have been lifted,” Ardy says.

It is thus good that as we heal together, many people are continuing to seek help instead of bottling things up inside.

To help more in need, Befrienders KL plans to expand with a new centre in Kuantan by this year – making it the organisation’s 10th centre in Malaysia.

As of July 5 last year, Befrienders has nine centres – one each in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Ipoh, Seremban, Melaka, Muar, Johor Baru, Kota Kinabalu and Kuching.

“For Befrienders KL, we are struggling with recruitment during the pandemic as it has stopped us from running our usual intake.

“We plan to recruit more throughout the year to increase our volunteers, and hopefully continue to provide 24-hour non-stop service to the public,” Ardy says.

It was reported that the Health Ministry said the top mental health issues from the pandemic are acute stress disorders, anxiety, depression, adjustment disorders and burnout.

ALSO READ: INTERACTIVE: Mental health for all

The ministry’s Covid-19 psychosocial support hotline, in collaboration with Mercy Malaysia volunteers, is still operating.

Those who wish to contact the line can do so at 03-29359935, 014-3223392, 011-63996482 or 011-63994236.

Its current operating hours are from Monday to Friday between 8am and 5pm.

Slowly but surely

For clinical psychologist Dr Joel Low, it is a yes and no that the increased freedom has helped people in distress to feel better.

“Those who felt cooped up and stuck these past two years will feel incredibly liberated.

“The opportunity to move around and travel again can be freeing.

“With a return to ‘normal’, it can be a huge boost to our mental health,” he says.

However, those who thrived during the lockdown like people who enjoy staying home a lot or have introverted personalities, may feel unsettled now that they are expected to be out and about again.

“Our move towards endemicity can cause a lot of anxiety for those who are already wary about Covid-19,” says Dr Low, who is the director of The Mind Psychological Services and Training.

He says change can be difficult as we continue to live with the virus amid fewer restrictions.

“Most of us have the ability to adapt quickly enough, but at the start, it can be unsettling.

“But given enough time, and hopefully, positive experiences, the change becomes more palatable and a sense of ease and comfort should return,” Dr Low says.

He shares that many individuals who have developed a coping mechanism to fend off Covid-19, are now going to be challenged as Malaysia enters an endemic stage.

“We have seen clients who don’t have much desire to be around people like they used to, but not in a depressed way.

“But rather, they are more comfortable being by themselves and that’s where they find peace,” he notes.

On the rising number of calls to Befrienders, Dr Low’s take is that life before the coronavirus gave us a lot of distractions.

“With work, late night mamak sessions, badminton games and shopping at malls, we had a lot of different ways to distract us from what was going on at home, between partners, parents, and our children.

“So when all of these distractions are forcibly removed, we’re almost forced to confront the things we used to ignore – demons both internal and external.

“I think that’s the reason why there was an increase in cases,” he explains.

An example that could crop up is conflict within the family in the past that was not really addressed and just swept under the rug.

“It also includes past hurt, doubts about our compatibility with partners, fears about being left alone, the feeling of being taken for granted and children who feel that they’re not being heard.

“Some adults also channel their fears and frustrations onto their kids or other family members,” Dr Low says.

Things will look up

Everybody has had their share of challenges during the pandemic, from financial to emotional issues.

ALSO READ: Life goes on with Covid-19, but most worry about social activities

And now that we are approaching a promising phase of the situation, we have to use our freedom wisely, says clinical psychologist and neuroscientist Dr Mohamed Faiz Mohamed Mustafar.

“I believe everyone has put tremendous effort to reach this far.

“Let us make use of our regained freedom to manage our psychological well being.

“At the same time, we must stay vigilant, be mindful of our mental health and continue being kind to ourselves and the people around us,” he says.

Dr Mohamed Faiz, a senior lecturer at the Universiti Sains Malaysia neurosciences department in Kelantan, says studies have shown that spending time outdoors, particularly in natural environments, and socialising can improve mental health.

It even reduces stress, anxiety and depression.

“Physiologically, these types of activities cause the brain to release serotonin which is a type of neurotransmitter that is important in stabilising mood, promoting better sleep patterns and healthy digestion,” he says.

He adds that people with higher adaptability can better handle the changes that come with endemicity.

“On the flip side, some individuals also find it difficult.

“Based on my clinical experience, some patients perceive the endemicity as a great challenge, as now they must go back to the office for work, school for classes or be in crowds.

“They started experiencing anxiety symptoms.

“In other cases, due to the routine practice of washing hands and extreme fear of Covid-19, they develop a condition known as obsessive-compulsive disorder,” he says, adding that examples of this behaviour is avoiding physical contact with close family members and excessive cleaning.

He concurs that most mental health issues will be better as time goes by and the nature of the recovery process is dynamic.

ALSO READ: Most will get over the mental health effects of the pandemic, say experts

“My top advice for those struggling with mental health issues due to the pandemic is to seek professional help.

“For the rest, pay attention to the people around you for some of these warning signs: unstable mood, unhealthy sleep patterns, change in appetite and weight, low motivation and fatigue and behavioral change.

“If you notice these signs in yourself or people in your life, please speak up about it,” he says.

Reach out to 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 sam@befrienders.org.my

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