We need to stop burying our heads in the sand when it comes to our mental health.
In the 1940s, if you told someone you were going running, people would have asked who was chasing you.
The idea that physical exercise had several health benefits was lost on most people, who felt that the fad would likely pass.
Nowadays, thanks to research into exercise and efforts to highlight why it’s good for us, we tend to take our physical health and nutrition more seriously.
However, the same cannot be said for our mental health. Sadly, there still exists the misconception that our mental health is inconsequential.
According to a study conducted in 2009 by Dr Reiko Yeap and Prof Wah Yun Low, one-third of Malaysians suffer from mental health issues.
However, 61% of Malaysians believe that the sufferer is to blame for their condition, while over three-quarters (76%) believe that there’s “no such thing as mental health”.
This stigma continues to have a detrimental affect on those who struggle with mental and emotional conditions like stress, anxiety and depression.
Defining mental health
Clinical psychologist Dr Joel Low notes that to begin addressing issues surrounding mental health, we first need to understand what mental health is.
The Mind psychology centre director says: “It’s a big area, and there are different ways to understand and perceive it.
“For me, mental health is about soundness of mind. All of us go through bad times at some point in our lives, and that’s a very normal part of life.
“Soundness of mind refers to when situations overwhelm our ability to cope and to say, ‘OK, I’ve had a bad day, tomorrow’s a new day, let’s move on.’
“So, I think that’s when our defences start failing and that’s when we start becoming susceptible to mental health issues.
“To have soundness of mind is to be resilient, to have the ability to bounce back, to be able to cope with a bad day and move on.”
As Dr Low points out, we all have our struggles, so why is it that many Malaysians are finding it hard to get their heads around the concept of mental health?
“There’s a general lack of knowledge when it comes to mental health,” he says. “People can’t tell the difference between depression and sadness, or General Anxiety Disorder and normal fear.
“Because of this, mental health issues get lumped under one giant umbrella, and people equate them with being crazy.
“So, what happens is, as a therapist, I can tell when someone is depressed, but they might resist being aware of it because of the fear of being labelled.”
One point of stigma is that some of the older generation believe the current generation has too much time to think, resulting in them manifesting these mental health issues.
Such a view might be overly-simplistic for some, but according to Dr Low, it does carry some weight.
“To say that if someone is busier or less idle, and therefore, won’t be as depressed – there is some truth to that.
“It’s something we focus on in therapy through behavioural strategies, encouraging clients to do pleasant activities, to go out or to learn a new skill.
“So there is some merit to that view; however, it’s not entirely right. There’s always a balance between the two.
“In some cases, hard work, being active and getting out there is warranted, and we see that with some clients who have spontaneous recovery.
“They come for one session, we suggest to them a few activities and they are fine after that.
“But it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes, we really do hit brick walls, which means we can’t carry on as normal, and there’s a lot of benefit in being aware of that.
“So, for the older generation, I would say that there’s truth in what they’re saying, but sometimes, we do fall so hard that we struggle to get up and that’s when we need to get help.”
Mental health myths
Sometimes, it is the misconceptions people have about mental health treatment that prevent them from getting the help they need.
According to Dr Low, these misconceptions include: “That medication is the only way to treat issues, and that once you’re on medication, you’re on it for life.
“That’s true to an extent if you don’t do anything else about your issues, because medication only treats the symptoms and not the root causes.
“So, if you’re depressed and you don’t do anything to address the underlying cause, then of course you’ll be on medications for longer.
“Another misconception is that, once you see a therapist, you’ll be labelled and people will think you’re crazy.
“Having seen countless clients, I can tell you that there’s no way to tell who’s receiving therapy and who’s not – it doesn’t show like a physical illness or injury.
“There’s also a concern that, if someone sees a therapist, they might lose their job if their employer finds out.
“In Malaysia, there are laws against discrimination. I don’t know how strongly they’re enforced, but legally speaking, no one can be fired because they suffer from a mental health issue.
“People often think that seeing a therapist is like seeing a GP (general practitioner). So, if you have a cold, you see a doctor, you take your meds, and off you go.
“But therapy doesn’t work that way – it takes time. So, people need to shift their mindset away from thinking that after one session, they need to be happy, they need to be better.
“Otherwise, it can be quite damaging, because if they expect to be much better after the first session, they might conclude that therapy doesn’t work (when they are not).”
Taking care of our mental health
While there is still a long way to go towards educating people on the importance of mental health and why we need to take care of it, Dr Low points to the progress being made by advocates and organisations, as well as the current Government’s proactive efforts to support service providers and provide more education to Malaysians.
But he also stresses the need to see our mental health in the same way as our physical health, and to have regular check-ups to ensure that we’re in the best possible condition.
He says: “If we can treat our mental health in the same way we treat our physical health and go for regular check-ups, then we reduce the risk of mental health issues by a significant degree.”
However, he adds that that is unlikely to happen any time soon.
“I think what does happen is that people begin to realise that their own coping strategies don’t work any more, or a friend or loved one points out to them that whatever they’re doing currently isn’t working for them.
“Those are the kinds of people who really need to go and see a therapist,” he says.
With the World Health Organization predicting that mental health will be the biggest health burden in developing countries by 2030, educating the public about mental health in a relatable way is probably an essential step.
Dr Low says: “The best thing they can do is to open up as many opportunities for education as possible.
“When I say education, I mean that we have to go beyond the research and documentaries to deliver information that’s easily accessible to anyone.
“For example, using popular topics can be helpful, such as the World Cup.
“If we imagine what’s going on when a player misses a penalty – what he’s thinking and feeling – people can connect to that and then be guided to understand their own thoughts and feelings in relation to what they know.
“It also helps to have more awareness across the media, and to hold talks or run community outreach programmes – anything that makes the information and education accessible to people is really important.
“Especially for those in rural areas, they should receive greater access to mental health services and information.”
But what about the steps we can take now to help with any struggles that we are facing?
According to Dr Low, it’s all about taking the time to ensure we have people we can talk to when things get tough, and investing in some regular self-care.
He says: “Make sure you have good friends and family around you that you can talk to. Often, it’s when you don’t have an outlet for all your thoughts that problems start to arise.
“Secondly, stay active – I think it’s something that’s still incredibly underrated in the mental health field.
“We talk a lot about the mind and emotions, and it makes sense. But our being includes the body, as well as the mind, so it’s important as well.
“People don’t have to go rock climbing or surfing, even just going for a walk or seeing some green can be really refreshing and help get you back on track.
“Lastly, it’s really important that people get enough sleep – at least six hours every day.
“It might be seen as a luxury these days, but it can make a huge difference in terms of how we feel, especially after a tough day.”