Everyone needs an outlet to vent, a shoulder to cry on or someone to turn to for emotional support. When there is no avenue to “offload”, life’s challenges and stressors can seem daunting. Little things can add up and trigger disruptive, negative or suicidal thoughts.
When the mind is disturbed, it wreaks havoc on the body. And on other people.
There is a rising prevalence of those with mental health issues in the country. Based on the National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) 2015, the prevalence of mental health issues among adults above 16 years of age is 29.2%, or 4.2 million Malaysians.
Mental health problems are a growing public health concern globally, and by 2020, it is expected to be the second biggest health problem affecting Malaysians after heart disease.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), depression is the leading cause of disability as measured by “years lived with disability” and the fourth contributor to the global burden of disease.
So who does one turn to for help or to talk things out? While we’ve all heard of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Befrienders, there is another organisation that has also been offering free counselling services for the past 27 years.
The Buddhist Gem Fellowship Counselling Unit (BGFCU) came into being in 1992 with a telephone counselling service to help individuals cope with the pressures of modern living.
The NGO also provides information and referral services, so that the client or caller will have the most competent resource to help them handle their problem.
“We saw a need for it back then and formed the unit with a group of people with counselling qualifications. Our unit comprises all volunteers who initially manned the helpline twice a week. With increasing demand, we’re now open for two hours daily from Monday to Friday,” says BGFCU main coordinator Wong Chung Heong.
People call in with a variety of problems, and not just relationship issues. “Lately, we’re seeing an increase in callers and their issues range from problems with parents, children, siblings, bosses, lecturers, studies, work, sexual orientation, grief, bereavement, etc,” says Wong.
BGFCU training coordinator Siew Yin Heng adds: “In January, we saw a peak in calls just before the Chinese New Year, when the stress level goes up.
“Many of these calls are from young people saying they are being urged to get married or find a partner. They feel pressured to face their parents and relatives when they return for the celebrations, which shouldn’t be the case.
“We’re here to provide emotional support. Maybe at that time, you just need to vent or talk to someone because you feel lonely or misunderstood. People feel ‘listened to’ when talking to someone who is non-judgemental.”
A year after being set up and with more people calling them, BGFCU started offering annual counselling courses and training to recruit more volunteers for the ongoing telephone counselling service.
“However, the course went beyond this objective as participants brought home with them some basic counselling knowledge and skills that also benefit them in their day-to-day living through better communication and interpersonal skills. It also enhanced their sense of empathy.
“We want to educate participants on key mental health issues so that they are able to recognise and identify mental health needs, know where to seek help and hopefully seek help when they face their own issues. It’s all about self-awareness and coping.
“If, after attending the training, the participants agree to be a volunteer for the telephone counselling service, then it is a bonus!” says Siew, a registered counsellor.
Over the years, the BGFCU has undergone many revamps, and today, provides intensive training to participants with the aim of producing para-counsellors (firstline counsellors) who have basic counselling skills to provide emotional support to those who are in distress.
“The ability to show empathy, compassion, genuine concern and unconditional acceptance of the client is generally how we define emotional support. If the para-counsellor isn’t able to handle the caller, he or she passes it on the supervisor, who is usually a registered counsellor,” says Siew.
Some of the topics in the training course include conflict resolution skills, mental and emotional impact of stress, lifelong human development, effective listening in counselling, self awareness etc, and the speakers comprise experts in the industry.
It takes around 18 months to become as a para-counsellor. Volunteers are assessed thoroughly before they are allowed to man the phone lines.
Siew reasons, “Remember, we’re dealing with a vulnerable person, so we don’t want volunteers who might stress people out further, hence our selection criteria is very important. During the training period, we do a lot of self-help sessions.”
Para-counsellors are encouraged to actively pursue continuous learning, and in support of this, BGFCU has started to conduct six full day workshops this year to assist them in sharpening their helping skills.
Wong says, “There are participants who loved the training so much that they brought other family members in and all have become our volunteers!”
There are currently 27 volunteers on the team, comprising para-counsellors and counsellors, who use mostly English as a medium of communication.
Each person who calls in is allocated 40 minutes and remains anonymous throughout the counselling session.
Only their age range and state they’re calling from are required in order to help BGFCU build a database.
Many of these callers are first-timers.
Wong says, “They may call an average of three or four times, then they don’t call any more, so we assume they are okay.
“Sometimes they feel comfortable with a certain para-counsellor and may want to speak to the same person again.
“We don’t talk to minors below 18, so we refer them to a professional.
“Usually, our cases are not so serious because the callers are all functional adults.
“And because we don’t operate 24 hours and have limited resour-ces, if it’s a suicidal case, we refer them to Befrienders.”
If there is a call complaining of abuse, whether physically, emotionally or verbally, the volunteers get informed consent and report the incident to the respective authorities.
“If there is a need, we ask them for their next-of-kin’s name, but we don’t ask them immediately, because a lot of times, they are not very receptive. This information is entirely voluntary though.
“For religious problems, we refer them because we are not trained in spiritual counselling,” says Wong, a former nurse, who has been a para-counsellor with BGFCU since it was established.
Siew explains that callers are given a “psycho-education” over the phone.
“If a caller says there is domestic violence, we don’t interrogate them as it pushes them away. Instead, we tell them where to go to seek help.
“We don’t contact them afterwards either. We teach them to empower themselves.
“Our role is not to advise, but to listen without prejudice.
“Many people say they are being pushed to ‘do the right thing’, but we cannot tell you what this ‘right thing’ is in one session.
“So we give you information for you to act on,” she says.
If the session is an effective one, the caller would be able to come up with a plan or experience self-realisation.
Siew says, “We trigger their awareness and allow them to see that there is a way out.
“When they share, they’re actually listening to themselves and start questioning themselves.
“It’s also a way for personal growth. A lot of us cannot see our own strengths.”
For the volunteers, there is a monthly talk session (for them to talk and share) after their “services” to help them unload what’s on their minds. Talking is therapeutic.
BGFCU hopes to reach out more to the public to let them know that help is always there, no matter how dire the situation may seem.
“We’re targeting working adults to help them cope with small stressors before they escalate out of control.
“Oftentimes, when stress is work-related, you don’t talk about it with your family members, or vice versa. We want to bridge this gap.” says Wong.