Doctor bids to destigmatise mental illness

Geraldine Tong | 8 March 2017

Almost one in three people in Malaysia suffer from some sort of mental health issue, according to the 2015 National Health and Morbidity Survey by the Health Ministry.

Yet, there seems to be very little discourse or work surrounding this issue even after two years, lamented clinical psychologist Dr. Chua Sook Ning.

Upset over the lack of action regarding mental health issues, Chua has taken it upon herself to create a support system for those suffering from mental health.

To that end, she decided to form an NGO called Relate Malaysia to destigmatise mental illness and to bring this issue to the mainstream to give it the proper attention it deserves.

“Twenty years ago, it was one in 10 people (who suffered from mental health issues).

“Today it is one in three, so not talking about a disease does not make the disease go away. It is getting worse,” the 34-year-old said heatedly in a Skype interview with Malaysiakini.

Maybe something is being done behind-the-scenes, she said, but to destigmatise mental health issues and ensure people know how and where to seek help, there must be public discourse.

“We need to hear about it, people need to know that there is a safety net for them,” she said.

Last October, Chua single-handedly formed Relate Malaysia and its website, where she coordinates everything and writes all the articles.

Now, a team of four run Relate, though they are all based overseas, which means almost all their work is currently based online.

Chua said she is also working closely with Subang Jaya assemblyperson Hannah Yeoh and Damansara Utama assemblyperson Yeo Bee Yin.

Another campaign by Relate which has been successful is the hashtag ‘I Am Not Ashamed’ campaign, where they encourage those suffering from mental health disorders to take a picture of themselves with the ‘I Am Not Ashamed’ hashtag sign.

This is her story, in her own words:

IT WOULD BE AN ISSUE IF YOU FOUND OUT one in three people had cancer or malaria or HIV.

But one in three people with mental health issues? Nothing.

RECENT STUDIES ALSO SHOW that depression rates among teens and young adults have exponentially grown.

We need to pay attention to it. Is it a crisis? Yes, it is a crisis.

ONE WAY TO TACKLE STIGMA IS BY PUBLIC EDUCATION, where the ‘I Am Not Ashamed’ campaign comes in, but that is only one part.

Another way we can tackle stigma is going “Hey, we need you to help us”.

WE DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONALS. (So we are) looking at studies where they looked at community-based models, where you get people in and give them tools to tackle (mental health issues).

These people are not professionals, but you can inform them about mental illness and help them not to be afraid of it and help them show empathy.

Hopefully, when they are in a difficult time as well, they can get help.

BECAUSE OF THE LOW NUMBERS OF mental health professionals, if the number of patients increases, we would not be able to cope.

We need to create interventions that do not rely heavily on humans.

I WORK REASONABLY CLOSELY WITH Hannah Yeoh. I think she, by far, has shown some of the most commitment to mental health, even within her jurisdiction, where she organised a depression workshop last year.

She has shown a lot of concern about this. Everyone shows a lot of concern when you talk about this, but they do not necessarily put it in action and be associated with it publicly, given the stigma.

RELATE IS UNIQUE because it offers a lot of local information that has been collated.

I also want to develop a parallel Malay version of the website because I am quite frustrated at the fact that 60 to 70 percent of the population are Malay speakers, but there are so few resources for them.

YOU END UP GETTING BETTER SUPPORT if you are an Anglophone. For Malay speakers we have nothing.

I think it is a shame and a failure on our part.

PSYCHOTHERAPY STARTS AT, ON AVERAGE, RM350 AN HOUR. Who is going to pay for that? Who can afford it?

Even if I got to the point where it is a viable option for people, it is not accessible because it is costly.

So not only do we need to tackle stigma, we need to make it affordable.

THERE IS ALSO NO KNOWLEDGE (about mental health issues), so people need to get knowledge.

The system also needs to change, there’s no protection, so we need to advocate for rights.

A LOT OF THE LAWS THAT we have on mental health, they are not patient-centric. They are primarily focused on regulations on mental health professionals.

If you are fired for mental illness, what are your rights? There have to be specific laws for that.

I THINK POLICY IS DRIVEN BY DEMAND, the more people talk about it, the more likely politicians will see that it is urgent.

They have their own niche concerns but also they tend to be driven by the needs of the people and what the people want.

WE NEED TO FEEL THE WEIGHT OF THE ISSUE. It is mind-blowing just how big it is and how little we have done.

There is very little institutional support and I think that is a shame.