Stop trivialising mental health

  • naturalLy
  • Saturday, 29 Jul 2017

Laws that involve life and death have no room for jokes on psychological abuse.

IT was the kind of WhatsApp message that no one wants to receive from a friend or family member. But come through my phone it did, amidst other messages, some on topics as mundane as work, arranging for meet-ups over coffee, and tips on running and fitness.

“I feel like offing myself.” That sentence shook me to the core. Despite a long day at work and the lateness of the hour, I agreed to meet the friend for supper to offer a shoulder to cry on.

I want to believe that compassion prevented a suicide that night. After all, love – in its varied forms and manifestations from the simplest gestures to the grandest of acts – is the greatest magic that can be evoked when dealing with such situations.

I am not a professional when it comes to mental health issues. Yet, when faced with such situations, I think anyone would automatically react with empathy.

Mental health is currently a hot topic, with many living with mental health issues using social media as a platform to increase visibility on the subject. The matter is made more prominent by cases of celebrity suicides, most recently that of Linkin Park’s lead vocalist, Chester Bennington.

I hate to think that trivialisation of mental health led to the depression and eventual suicide of a 41-year-old man idolised by many of my generation; I hate the fact that humans have that much power to hurt another. Ironically, Linkin Park helped me, and many others, to deal with our own teenage angst and depressive episodes through their music.

A part of me wondered about the what-ifs. If Chester had simply sent a text message and a friend had answered his pleas for help, would he have instead benefited from an initiative similar to the suicide prevention website set up by his bandmates following his death? Would a life be saved, or would the demons of depression still hold on, merely postponing the time when one finally gives in to despair?

I’m afraid Chester’s suicide is neither the first nor would it be the last to catalyse public discourse on mental health.

Closer to home, current statistics from the National Health and Morbidity Survey projected that mental health problems are set to be the second biggest health problem affecting Malaysians after cardiovascular diseases by 2020; where being young, female, and financially vulnerable presented higher risks of developing mental health issues.

Reading through the discourse on mental health online is further disheartening. Such statements as “I feel like committing suicide” and “I have depression” have been trivialised as “attention-seeking”, and in some cases, aggravated by further online harassment to dare the individuals to commit suicide.

Yet, even with vibrant, ongoing discourse on this issue, there are still many who trivialise mental health. This is especially disappointing when it comes from policymakers.

The debate on the recently passed Domestic Violence (Amendment) Bill 2017 saw the MP for Setiu, Che Mohamad Zulkifly Jusoh, trivialising psychological abuse, to the general amusement of Parliament.

(Che Mohamad equated the withholding of sex by wives with inflicting emotional and psychological abuse on husbands. He said it was also abuse when the wife of a Muslim man denies her husband’s requests to marry another woman.)

I did not find these remarks funny.

Emotional and psychological abuse is a more cruel form of abuse, as it leaves no visible physical scars, and in many cases, it leads to intimate partner violence, including marital rape. The trauma faced by survivors of such episodes is life-long and often further impacts the mental health of children of these survivors.

I do not have access to national data on how many suicides and suicide attempts are caused by intimate partner abuse. However, inferring from 2015 statistics published by the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) on women who sought shelter that year (n=99), all survivors (100%) have experienced psychological abuse, with 51% of these women having considered suicide. A further significant number from this subset have actually attempted suicide (55%), some more than three times (15%).

A form of psychological abuse is threatening polygamy, with husbands using sex as a tool to control and contort.

Contrary to popular belief, polygamy is historically allowed to ensure that families who have lost their breadwinners (i.e. husbands) due to war are taken care of. Thus, it is a means to address an economic issue rather than a sexual one.

This economic burden is highlighted in a 2014 study conducted by Sisters in Islam (SIS), where today, polygamy is shown to lower overall quality of life, especially among working-class families, and increase a family’s financial burden, resulting in wives needing to take on second jobs or find new means of income.

Increasing financial burden is a risk factor for mental health issues. Surely this is a slippery slope towards depression and attempted suicides, not a chance to have a comedic moment in parliament?

There are occasions for humour to be used to defuse tension in our august house. When it comes to laws involving live and death, however, it is no laughing matter.

Lyana Khairuddin is a virologist and a runner, and hopes to #bringbackthekebaya. The views expressed here are entirely her own.

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Opinion , "Lyana Khairuddin" , NaturalLy


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