LETTER | The recent tragic death by suicide of a teenager in Kuching has propelled the issue of social media’s impact on mental health to the forefront of the national conscience. 

There have been calls from multiple parties, including elected representatives, mental health professionals and members of the public, for open, honest conversations about mental health issues in our community, particularly with our youth and adolescents.

The path that leads someone to take their own life is an accumulation over time of many different factors that create a sense of hopelessness mixed with worthlessness, and finally suicidal thoughts and attempts. 

The person could have been suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, psychosis and any number of mental health and social issues.

In order to move forward society needs to recognise that mental health awareness is a collective responsibility – not just the government’s, or the education system’s, or something that is the sole province of psychologists and psychiatrists. 

There is a need for a comprehensive, holistic public health approach to mental health, with collaboration across public, private and non-governmental sectors.

Equally important, as a community, we need to take responsibility to equip ourselves with the right knowledge and skills to help those going through mental health crises, and not dismiss or belittle their issues as “negative thinking”, “overthinking”, “attention-seeking behaviour” and the like.

With respect to mental health in children, adolescents and youth, all relevant Ministries, not just Education, must be roped in to strategise how to address this issue.

This is not only in terms of identifying early signs and providing support, but also to build a caring community that is aware and supportive of those living with mental health issues.

Proactive steps we can take

The Mental Health Association of Sarawak (MHAS), and Befrienders Kuching call for the following measures to foster a kinder and more supportive community for those living with mental health problems:

1) Open conversations and support

We believe that ignorance and stigma are the root cause of how some responded when presented with the Instagram poll. 

Mental illnesses are inherently very isolating conditions because of this low level of awareness and high level of stigma in society. 

Open conversations about mental well-being and mental health conditions that are non-judgmental and non-stigmatising are crucial to foster an environment that allows people going through mental health issues to speak up, be understood and feel supported.

2) Mental Health literacy training

It should be standard for all individuals and agencies with a high level of contact with people in the community to receive training in identifying signs of mental health conditions and directing them to the appropriate channels for help. 

This includes educators, parents, employers, community and religious leaders, emergency response personnel and government service personnel.

3) Media responsibility 

Social media platforms should have an alert button and immediate reporting system for posts that are related to suicidal plans and ideas. 

Help should be offered to such individuals as soon as possible to prevent tragedies from happening. 

In addition, all media professionals and agencies should be trained in responsible reporting on suicides according to guidelines issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP). 

There is extensive evidence that shows that media reports on suicide have a significant impact on enhancing or weakening suicide prevention efforts.

4) Decriminalising attempted suicide

The current law, underlined in Section 309 of the Penal Code, states that a suicide survivor is liable to one-year imprisonment or a fine or both. 

This archaic law is not only inhumane and counter-productive, but it is also likely to drive those who attempt suicide to succeed on their first attempt. 

Standard Operating Procedures should be set up within the police force and other related agencies to provide immediate help for the attempter.

5) Insurance coverage for mental illness

Mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are currently not covered under insurance policies in Malaysia. 

This would have three immediate benefits: encourage people to seek help from private facilities without worrying about the financial burden, ease heavy demand on public healthcare facilities, and destigmatize mental health conditions.

Public forum

In line with our call to action, MHAS in collaboration with Befrienders Kuching will be organizing a public forum on Social Media and Suicide – How to Lower the Risks. The objectives will be to build awareness of how to be more supportive to people struggling with suicidal thoughts, advocate for change and build a more empathetic environment. 

This forum will bring together mental health professionals, members of the media and the public to discuss the changes necessary to make social media a safer place for all, and to make mental healthcare accessible to those in crisis. Details will be announced later. 

We also encourage the responsible sharing of appropriate information about living with mental health conditions through our social media platforms and public events.

In addition, from next year, MHAS through its partnership with the Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA) will be conducting the internationally recognized Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course. 

The MHFA is a licensed, evidence-based mental health literacy course that improves both knowledge and skills so more people have the confidence to assist those they meet who are developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis and link them to the appropriate professional help. 

In the meantime, MHAS in association with Befrienders Kuching offers periodic workshops and seminars on mental health for interested parties.

Mental Health Association of Sarawak (MHAS) is an established non-governmental organisation dedicated to promoting mental health and well-being in the community. It provides support and services for both sufferers and caregivers including face to face counselling. The Kuching office can be reached at 082-231459 or [email protected].

Befrienders Kuching is part of the nationwide Befrienders network. It is a non-profit organisation providing emotional support to people who are lonely, in distress, in despair, and suicidal. Their emotional support hotline is 082-242800 (operational from 6.30pm till 9.30pm) and the emotional support email service is [email protected]

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