Mental illness: Okay not to be okay

LETTERS: IN 2015, I was living with a Chinese Malaysian flatmate in the United Kingdom.She was always smiling. She greeted people courteously and often wore smart-casual outfits. She seemed happy. It took several weeks before I realised some “abnormalities” about her.She would easily get emotional and was sometimes hyperactive. These were, at first, covered by her 10As and 4As score sheets in Malaysia’s IGCSE and A-levels respectively, apart from being attractive.Close to the Christmas break the same year, I was having a conversation with her at a gathering. We touched on a range of topics, academically, socially and culturally. Somehow we both shared our mental health records and it was then that I learnt that she had been suffering from bipolar disorder for years due to stress.Mental health is a significant topic within and beyond the Malaysian context. Data from the 2017 National Health and Morbidity Survey revealed that 29 per cent of Malaysians suffered from depression and anxiety disorders, a rise from 12 per cent in 2011. At present, Malaysians facing mental health problems may remain quiet in social or professional settings to avoid any taboo and stigma.However, as a chronic social anxiety disordered patient, I understand very well how holding back unstable and negative emotions without sharing any thoughts and feelings with trusted individuals will worsen mental wellbeing significantly.Like my former Malaysian Chinese flatmate, very often, I feel obliged to live up to the expectations of parents, teachers and supervisors, ostensibly shaping our personal image as positive, able and promising as possible.For over a decade, I hid my stress and emotions, in addition to feeling guilty whenever I was judged by others.We should be wary as mental illness is expected to be the second biggest health problem in Malaysia after heart disease by the end of this year.Nearly 30 per cent of adults, aged 16 or above, face some degree of mental health problems.I remember I was having a conversation on mental health with an academic from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London not long ago.As the academic argued, which I agreed to a large extent, a categorisation between the mentally-able and disabled populations is unnecessary.This is because we mostly face mental health issues at some point in life.For those who suffer from acute mental illness, they may feel life is particularly hard, inconvenient and frustrating.That said, these mentally impaired cohorts have disabilities but they are not necessarily disabled.During a health seminar at Harvard Extension School in 2018, my course mates and I wrapped up a discussion that each person must feel limitations — where there is always a gap between your ideal self and actual self.According to the Public Attitude towards Mental Health survey, 62.3 per cent of mentally-ill Malaysians fail to disclose their conditions and just over 50 per cent believe Malaysians with such disorders are dangerous and violent.While having mental health discussions in a public setting can cause stigmatisation, Malaysians can find alternative communication means to share their mental health issues.In recent years, a Facebook group known as Subtle Asian Mental Health has given an opportunity to many to share their mental struggles and concerns.Many Asian Facebook users would leave positive and constructive comments and recommend some coping tactics to help others better manage their mental conditions.Whenever Malaysians use social media platforms to conduct a mental health conversation, they often have an opportunity to release part of their stress.In the long-term, when sharing mental health thoughts on social media becomes increasingly trending, more people are able to build the awareness and understanding of mental disorders.Mental illnesses do not, and should not, be referred to as “gila” (insanity) or “sakit jiwa” (illness of the soul). By building awareness of mental disorders, Malaysians can better understand that it is “totally okay not to be okay”.Like many Malaysians, I have a disability but I am not disabled. JASON H. LONDON, THE UNITED KINGDOM The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times

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