Putting youth mental health on the agenda

Opinion  |  Lim Su Lin
Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | Adolescence – that unique, halcyon phase of a young person’s life – is characterised by change and transition. These are years of encountering new experiences, building social skills and learning to handle challenges independently.

It is during adolescence that many key developments take place, physically as well as mentally. In fact, adolescence is one of the most critical life stages for building and protecting good mental wellbeing. But how much do we actually know about the mental health of young people in Malaysia?

The official data derives largely from the government’s National Health and Morbidity surveys (NHMS), which are carried out in regular cycles by the Institute for Public Health, an agency under the Health Ministry. These statistics are the closest we have to definitive information on the state of young people’s mental wellbeing.

Unsettlingly, these official figures reveal that mental health problems are more common among this age group than we care to think.

According to the 2017 NHMS conducted on 13- to 17-year-olds, two in five teenagers nationwide had symptoms of anxiety, and one in five had symptoms of depression.

The proportion of ‘at risk’ students has barely changed since 2012, when a similar prevalence sampling exercise was carried out. That year, 39.6 percent of students reported symptoms of anxiety, and 17.7 percent symptoms of depression.

Offhand, these figures may not seem very significant, especially since they do not represent actual diagnosable mental health conditions. But, lined up against data on youth suicidal behaviours, a deeper concern emerges.

Between 2012 and 2017, levels of suicidal ideation among students rose from 7.9 percent to 10 percent. In other words, one in 10 young people had seriously contemplated killing themselves.

Not all of this was entirely impulsive and fanciful thinking. Last year, one in 14 surveyed students disclosed that they had planned their attempts, while approximately one in 15 had acted on these plans and attempted to take their lives...

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