PETALING JAYA: Social intervention is needed to address mental health problems among youth, particularly those living in people’s housing projects (PPR), as a purely medical approach may not work, say health experts.
The experts also noted that there was a global mental health pandemic, especially among teenagers, and Malaysia was no exception.
They said school-based prevention programmes that would enable teachers and counsellors to detect such cases would be a good step.
Consultant paediatrician Datuk Dr Amar-Singh HSS said although the figures in the recent report were alarming, they were not unexpected.
He added that previous studies had also indicated the problem was not confined to the Klang Valley or PPR.
“The National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) 2017, which did a much larger national sample of more than 40,000 students aged 10 to 17, using validated tools, showed that one in five students (20%) were depressed, two in five (40%) were anxious, and one in 10 (10%) were stressed,” he said.
In addition, 10% reported suicidal ideation.
The 2017 NHMS data showed a rise in rates from an earlier 2012 NHMS study.
In the NMHS data, suicidal ideation was higher in urban students compared to those in rural communities, he added.
He said studies had also shown that mental health crises among adolescents had been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic as a result of social isolation and learning loss.
“Train a large number of counsellors to support children, as well as facilitate group discussions, to enable students to express and process the emotional impact of the pandemic,” he said, adding that increased funding is needed to expand access to mental health services nationwide.
“The Contributing Factors to Psychological Distress, Coping Strategies and Help-Seeking Behaviours among Adolescents Living in the Klang Valley’s People’s Housing Projects” report found that 12.3% of adolescents aged 10 to 17 living in PPRs experience psychological distress.
Of these, 10.7% have depression symptoms, and 7.2% have anxiety symptoms.
In addition, 212 participants (13.4%) reported suicidal and self-harming thoughts.
Consultant Psychiatrist and President of the Malaysian Mental Health Association Prof Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj (pic) said poor-quality housing, high-density living conditions, excessive noise, and other social conditions often found in the lower socio-economic areas of the Klang Valley can contribute towards increased cases of depression and anxiety.
“Rapid and unplanned urbanisation all over the world has led to the creation of a ‘fringe population’, mostly living from hand to mouth, which further adds to poverty, which inevitably leads to mental health issues,” he said, adding that this could increase the prevalence of depression and anxiety.
He said urban residents were still grappling with job insecurities and the high cost of living after the Covid-19 pandemic.
This also increases psychological stress, which can have a spillover effect on teenagers and children.
“In PPR communities, social ‘over-stimulation’ can lead to increased crime and domestic violence, which are also determinants of mental health issues.
“Children and teens growing up in such overstimulated communities could have increased exposure to cigarettes, alcohol and substance abuse,” he said.
Prof Mohanraj said mental health issues affecting the urban poor could not be solved by just providing psychological support, adding that social intervention was equally important.
“The relevant ministries and agencies should promote and encourage healthy behaviours that can help prevent the onset of a diagnosable mental disorder and reduce risk factors that can lead to the development of a mental disorder.
“This also involves creating safe living conditions and environments that support the mental health of children and teenagers,” he said.
“Examples of these could include child and youth development programmes and skills-building programmes for older teenagers and youth.”