Mental health — it affects all of us

JUST last week, my friend and colleague D. Kanyakumari did a solid set of articles that raised a valid point — that we need to all work together to help remove the stigma that comes with mental illnesses like bipolar disorder or depression. 

In her series of four articles, she highlighted one vital, damning fact that drove the point home for me, namely that four out of every 10 Malaysians will fall victim to some form of mental health issue in the course of their lives and psychologists believe that the numbers will continue to rise and that we often lack a sense of empathy when it comes to how we treat people with mental disorders. 

I mean, speaking from my life experience thus far, I have all too often seen and heard people denounce and condemn those they feel are mentally unwell. 

Frankly speaking, I think we've all heard, seen and used the terms "crazy" and "mentally sick" to mock people at some point or another in our lives for being different. And I think that many among us reading this have told someone to snap out of it and get their head back in the game instead of trying to empathise with them and understand why they're feeling the way they are. 

Indeed, I have seen how we have been quick to attribute mental illnesses such as mass hysteria to supernatural causes such as spiritual possession and haunted schools instead of addressing the root causes, such as emotional stress, tension and anxiety in students. 

In thinking about this, I cannot dispute that all of us need to work together to break the barriers of stigma so that those who need help can seek help — as the consequences of unrecognised and untreated mental health issues can affect us all, with a clear example being that of Germanwings Flight 9295.

In this case, a scheduled flight from Barcelona–El Prat Airport in Spain to Düsseldorf Airport in Germany ended in disaster when the flight crashed in the French Alps, killing all 144 passengers and six crew on board in March 2015. 

And if you're wondering how this was due to mental health issues, the crash was deliberately caused by the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, who was declared unfit to work and was being treated for suicidal tendencies. 

Lubitz kept this information from his employer and while serving on the fateful Germanwings flight, locked the cockpit door while the captain stepped out of the cockpit and dove the airliner into a mountainside.

It bears pointing out that Germanwings Flight 9295 isn't the only case where stigmatised mental health issues have led to disaster, as we also have another example in the form of Japan Airlines Flight 350, where Captain Seiji Katagiri killed 24 people after he deliberately set his flight to crash into Tokyo Bay as it approached Tokyo's Haneda Airport in February 1982. 

In this case, Katagiri had been experiencing depression and had also been hallucinating prior to his fateful flight. 

So what can we do to lift the barriers that we know exist?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness in the United States, the first step we can take is to talk openly about mental health. We need to share stories and read up on accounts of how lives have been touched by mental health issues and how challenges have been successfully overcome. 

And a quick Google search shows that resources such as and are just a click away.

Moving on, the next step is to educate ourselves and others about mental health — which we can do through these sites. We can then use this knowledge on an as-needed basis to challenge people respectfully when they are perpetuating stereotypes and misconceptions. 

In a nutshell, we need to learn and be aware so we can speak up and educate those who spread stereotypes and misconceptions. Additionally, we need to be careful of the language we use, as we should try to use words that are more compassionate than branding someone a "psycho" or a "lunatic."

There are also several ways in which we can also encourage equality in how people perceive physical health and mental health issues. such as using similar language when speaking about both physical and mental health and speaking up when people with mental illnesses are portrayed in an incorrect way by the media. 

These views are supported by — which encourages friends and family of those facing mental health issues to show care and concern by patiently asking questions, listening to ideas, and being responsive when the topic of mental health problems come up.

In fact, it encourages friends and family to gently consider and include the person facing mental health issues in our daily plans, saying that we should "continue to invite him or her without being overbearing, even if your friend or family member resists your invitations".

At the end of the day, we need to see the person and not their mental illness and call for reform — something that is sorely needed here in Malaysia. 

We need to learn up, speak up and make sincere efforts to tear down the barriers of stigma and call for better care before we all pay a heavy, heavy price.
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