By Nasuha Badrul Huzaini
AS the Covid-19 pandemic continues to affect the global community both socially and economically, Malaysia is seeing a worrying trend with regards to mental health, including a rise in cases of suicide.
Based on police data, between January and July this year, 468 suicide cases were recorded nationwide, with 117 of the tragic deaths registered in Selangor.
Aside from being regarded as taboo, suicide is also a crime in Malaysia.
Yet, criminalising the act places the victim as the perpetrator and does nothing to address the mental suffering that he or she is already going through.
Governments, various agencies and NGOs alike have initiated awareness campaigns to shed light on the growing problem.
In conjunction with World Suicide Prevention Day on Sept 10, Selangor Journal speaks with state executive councillor for public health Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud on the Selangor government’s efforts in addressing mental health issues and in preventing suicides.
In response to Section 309 of the Penal Code, which states that whoever who atempts to commit the act of suicide shall be punished with imprisonment or a fine, Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud said time is of the essence to fight this archaic law.
The state administration has to join hands with other bodies and NGOs and form a louder stance against it.
The matter, she said, requires an urgent and in-depth review by the Federal government. “In my opinion, decriminalising suicide attempts is one of the steps in reducing stigmatisation and it will allow people who are experiencing troubled thoughts to seek proper help,” she said.
While the Federal law is beyond the state government’s jurisdiction, Dr Siti Mariah said Selangor has remained committed to addressing mental health issues.
Last year, the state had allocated RM1 million under its stimulus package, the Selangor Cares Package 2.0, to fund counselling sessions and consultations with mental health specialists for those who have been emotionally impacted by Covid-19 and the movement control order (MCO).
And recently, on Aug 30, Selangor had introduced another awareness programme, the Selangor Mental Health Programme (Sehat), which saw a total allocation of RM500,000 and is accessible via the state’s SELangkah app.
“Sehat is a sustainable mental health plan which includes several features such as an awareness module, early self-assessment, intervention programmes, and training for counsellors.
“There will be 31 certified counsellors who will be offering psychosocial support and counselling services via the ‘Talian Sehat’ helpline,” she said.
Dr Siti Mariah added that the app is an important tool for the state government, not only in helping to reach out to the people and provide them with something they can use at home but in helping to collect data such as user feedback, which will be used to plan future programmes.
“This platform will assist the state administration in planning next year’s programmes and the allocation of funds,” she said.
A helpline and a lifeline
Befrienders Kuala Lumpur (Befrienders KL), a 24-hour hotline that provides emotional support to the public, has reported a consistent upward spike in the number of calls they received after Covid-19 hit the country.
Its executive director Kenny Lim said from the three months of the first MCO last year till a year after, the centre saw an increase of 52 per cent in the number of calls coming in.
“In fact, 30 to 40 per cent of the callers were either having suicidal thoughts or have attempted to end their lives. The top three issues reported to us are mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder; relationship issues; and family-related issues.
“We have been seeing these issues in the previous years we have been in operation. However, we are now hearing more about the struggles people have in facing the pandemic and lockdowns, such as the loss of jobs or income, affected businesses, loneliness and isolation, and struggles with working from home or online study routines,” he said.
Realising the urgent need to provide support, Kenny said Befrienders KL focused fully on its 24-hour phone helpline and email service as face-to-face sessions have been suspended since February 2020 due to the pandemic.
“We also continue with our awareness programmes, conducting free webinars on topics related to mental health and suicide prevention. We impart basic listening skills in the hope that participants will be more aware of what the people around them are going through and can provide basic support when they encounter someone in distress,” he added.
Awareness on the internet
Social media plays an important role in creating awareness and educating the public on mental health.
Kenny said the platform allows the delivery of information to social media users and that the centre utilises the medium to reach out to the public, especially the youth group.
“More people are opening up about their mental health struggles on social media and this helps with awareness too, as talking about the issues is one way of reducing stigma.
“Nowadays, we can see active participation from government agencies who provide free counselling services. We welcome the effort as there is a dire need to support those who are struggling emotionally.”
Citing the recent suicide statistics from the police, Kenny said it had struck up a public discourse, opening up avenues for discussion and empathy, which is a positive development for society as a whole.
“We hope that this can translate into more action taken. For example, there is a need to increase the number of mental health professionals (psychiatrists, clinical psychologists), especially in public hospitals, to reduce the waiting time for patients to seek professional help,” he said.
Meanwhile, Kenny said efforts to decriminalise suicide attempts have been made since a long time ago but with little progress.
Those who attempt suicide are not criminals, he stressed, and should not be punished for the act but instead be sent for treatment and care.
This article first appeared in the Selangor Journal monthly September edition, published on September 6, 2021.