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LETTER | Our nation's weaknesses in tackling mental health problems

LETTER | There are several weaknesses in our country’s system when it comes to tackling mental health problems within our society.

Based on a technical report released by our Health Ministry in December 2017, as much as 29.2 percent of adults (age 16 and above), or one in three adults and 12.1% of children in Malaysia are experiencing mental health problems. 

These statistics make this the second largest health problem after heart disease which is plaguing Malaysians. Besides that, statistics from the National Health and Morbidity Study (NHMS) conducted in 2019 revealed that almost half a million of our country’s population experience depression. 

With the additional pressure experienced in terms of health, mental and financial aspects brought upon by the prolonged Covid-19 pandemic, these figures surely would have increased to even worse levels in the past three years.

Ultimately, the data above shows that our country’s system does not take the issue of mental health seriously enough. Some of the system’s weaknesses in dealing with mental health problems include:

  • The number of psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and counsellors in the country, in general, are too few.

  • Most of the available psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and counsellors in the country are concentrated in Penang and KL. This causes a lot of inconvenience for those who need mental health services and treatment but stay in other states and areas apart from those two places.

  • There are too few psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and counsellors working in the government sector. This causes inconvenience for those in the B40 socioeconomic category who cannot afford to pay for such mental health services in the private sector.

  • The costs of certain medications for treating mental health conditions are too expensive and many people cannot afford to buy them, especially the B40 category.

  • Due to the overly low level of education and awareness, our Malaysian society in general has negative perceptions as well as stereotypes towards those having mental health problems. As a result, most people with mental health problems are ashamed to get help. 

There are several steps that the government should take through the relevant ministries and departments in order to effectively tackle this pressing issue:

1. Encourage much more psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and counsellors in government service so that society, especially the B40 category, has access to affordable mental healthcare services throughout the country (and not just in Penang and KL). The Health Ministry should provide high enough wages and benefits to these government specialists so that they are not attracted to the private sector.  

2. Extend higher education courses in the fields of psychiatry, clinical psychology and counselling to all higher education institutes in Malaysia so that there will be more graduates who will be able to join the workforce in the mental health field.

3. Provide financial assistance for mental healthcare services so that the costs of medication, counselling services as well as therapy can be reduced in order to alleviate the financial burden, especially towards the B40 category of society.

4. Every local health clinic in every town throughout Malaysia should have at least one psychiatric doctor, given the seriousness of mental health problems currently afflicting our society.  

5. Launch a nationwide campaign through the media to change society’s negative perceptions as well as stereotypes towards mental health diseases as well as those suffering from mental health problems.

6. Provide mental health education at secondary and tertiary education levels in order to cultivate awareness among the youth on how important mental healthcare is for the welfare and progress of society.

Good mental health is every individual’s right. A country can only progress if the mental health of its people is well cared for by the government, with commitment. Therefore, the government should make tackling mental health problems a priority and take proactive steps such as the above for the sake of our society’s well-being.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.