IT’S an unseen “side effect” of the Covid-19 pandemic that needs our attention.
More Malaysians are facing mental health issues at varying levels – be it due to job losses, changing norms or feeling anxious over the coronavirus.
“The pandemic has affected the mental health of the population at every level.
“The most common mental health issues are acute stress disorders, anxiety, depression, adjustment disorders and burnout,” the Health Ministry tells Sunday Star.
It’s become more important, now more than ever, for mental health care to be more accessible to all walks of life, especially those in the low income bracket or B40.
However, the problem is that Malaysia still does not have enough mental health professionals, with the current counsellor-to-individual ratio being 1: 52,000.
The normal ratio should be one counsellor for every 5,000 people, says the ministry.
Fortunately, the ministry is working towards ensuring more people get the help they need.
The ministry is training more volunteers from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to equip them with Psychological First Aid (PFA).
“Such training will enable volunteers to provide basic psychosocial support at the community level.
“They will be able to help identify those who may need further assessment and intervention, and help them get the professional help they need,” the ministry says.
PFA is supportive and practical assistance to people who have recently suffered a serious stressor, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
While it is not considered professional counselling, such help provides comfort, non-intrusive care and protects others from further harm.
In a short period of time, the ministry realises it may not be possible to achieve the desired number of mental health professionals.
“As such, we are looking into the concept of “task shifting” to empower local community leaders, religious leaders and NGOs to detect people with mental health issues, provide support and assist them in getting help appropriately,” the ministry says.
To date, there are a total of 459 psychiatrists nationwide, with 256 being in the public sector.
There are 30 clinical psychologists with the Health Ministry, while eight are with other ministries.
The ministry also has a total of 346 psychology counselling officers and over 500 family medicine specialists, who provide mental health services at the primary care level.
“These family medicine specialists are trained to diagnose and treat mental disorders like depression and anxiety disorders,” the ministry says.
Such efforts are timely with this year’s World Mental Health Day’s slogan by the WHO, “Mental health care for all: let's make it a reality”.
The slogan has been adapted to Bahasa Malaysia by the ministry as “Let’s Talk Minda Sihat: Menuju Kesaksamaan Kesihatan Mental.”
“Given mental health has always been defined as an essential dimension of health, the ministry is committed to ensuring accessible mental health services where no one will be left behind,” it says.
Marked every year on this day (Oct 10), World Mental Health Day aims to raise awareness on mental wellbeing across nations.
As self-care is one way we can manage our mental health, take this quiz to find out if you are doing enough for yourself:
The cost of mental health
But the reality is that the price to seek mental health care is much higher in the private sector.
For example, private centres can cost about RM100 to RM250 per session, depending on the facility and counsellor’s level of qualification.
In contrast, the ministry’s Community Mental Health Centres (Mentari) offers the first check up for free for patients with a referral letter from public health clinics.
After that, RM5 is charged for each follow up session.
The various free helplines now are also a much appreciated service for all, but more needs to be done, says consultant psychiatrist Dr Ting Joe Hang.
Dr Ting notes that Malaysia has one of the best public healthcare systems in the world where free treatment or services charged at a nominal fee can be given to anyone.
“But the waiting list can be quite long due to the lack of resources and manpower, especially in mental healthcare,” he points out.
With more mental health professionals in Malaysia, Dr Ting believes that the waiting time can be reduced and more clinics can be opened.
“Right now, the WHO’s slogan is even more true than ever that mental health care should be for all, as more people worldwide suffer from mental health issues.
“Mental health and social issues tend to be more prevalent among the B40, therefore more should be done for them,” he says.
Noting the situation, the ministry realises there is a discrepancy in the cost of treatment between the government and private sectors.
“For those who can’t afford to go for private facilities, they can seek treatment at the ministry’s facilities nationwide,” it says.
This includes mental health services in 1,161 health clinics at primary care facilities which provide screening and intervention for individuals with mental health conditions.
There are also 60 hospitals and 28 Mentari centres nationwide that provide psychiatric and mental health services for the public.
“The ministry also launched an initiative to incorporate mental health screening services as part of the Health Care Scheme in the PeKa B40 initiative to ensure the low income group has access to mental health assistance,” it points out.
Stop the stigma
Another stumbling block for those who need to get help is the stigma that comes with seeking mental health treatment.
Malaysian Psychological Association president Assoc Prof Dr Wan Shahrazad Wan Sulaiman says mental health is often overlooked due to its lack of visibility, as well as the negative stigma and discrimination from some quarters in society.
“The most vulnerable people like minorities, youths, senior citizens and frontliners are more often affected,” she says.
To make mental health more visible, Dr Wan Shahrazad, a senior lecturer at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, says efforts need to be scaled to bigger levels to improve the people’s wellbeing.
It’s certainly okay to get help, and the ministry calls on the public to stop the stigma involving patients with mental health conditions and their carers in seeking help.
“Getting treatment early will help alleviate the emotional impact that the family is going through,” it adds.
For those who seek alternative treatments like from bomoh or sinseh to cure mental illnesses, the ministry empathises that family members sometimes want to seek out various sources for their loved ones.
“However, the ministry would like to stress that it’s important to get a medical diagnosis if you or your loved ones are suspected to have a mental illness.
“Depression and other mental illnesses are treatable.
“Please seek professional help first to avoid delays in diagnosis and getting timely treatment,” it urges.
For more information on how to get help, visit www.infosihat.gov.my/let-s-talk-minda-sihat.html