PETALING JAYA: The topic of suicide is unpleasant to discuss; but given it very much affects Malaysians, it merits discussion all the same.
All suicides are tragedies in themselves, with the void left behind by those who take their own lives, felt deeply by those they leave behind.
This can be attested to by Alia Ali, founder of local support group and NGO, Awareness Against Suicide (AWAS) Malaysia.
In conjunction with World Suicide Prevention Day today, FMT Lifestyle spoke with Alia, who lost a loved one to suicide over a decade ago.
Having a professional background in mental healthcare, Alia said she founded AWAS in 2020 for a deeply personal reason.
“Even though it has been ten years, not a day goes by that I do not think of him, that I do not feel the guilt,” she said. “That’s my drive for starting AWAS.”
According to her, after suffering the loss, she reached out to a mental health group for solace. “What I wanted to find was someone who shared the same experience.”
Unfortunately, she could not find what she was looking for, as most help is geared towards people with suicidal thoughts, not survivors of suicide loss.
Thus, Alia’s sense of guilt festered as she continued to feel that she could have done things differently to save her loved one’s life.
“I did see the signs of his struggling. He wasn’t sleeping. There was a lot of anger and low moments. But I could not bring myself to ask if he was okay.”
She said that she, like most Malaysians, never expect suicide to personally affect them until the very moment it does.
Malaysians, she said, tend to mischaracterise people with suicidal thoughts as “weak” or “attention-seeking”. Much of this judgement comes from misplaced religious faith, which results in a lack of empathy for people’s suffering.
Alia personally saw the constant public stigma which arose from how her loved one’s suicide was reported to the public.
“There were so many comments about how he was ‘low-life’ and ‘in hell’. They knew nothing about him. Mind you, he was a valedictorian, a student doing well.”
Worse still, the photos of the tragedy leaked out onto the Web, leading to further trauma for Alia and her loved one’s family.
She decided to advocate for the destigmatisation of suicide and to encourage Malaysians to be more empathetic.
The struggle has been uphill, with Alia herself struggling with clinical depression after the tragedy, even suffering from panic attacks.
“I just could not bring myself to see a psychiatrist,” she said. “I was ashamed. My mental wellbeing collapsed and I was just… emotionally paralysed.”
She does note that it has been an eye-opening experience for her, being on both sides of the issue as mental healthcare provider and recipient.
According to Alia, Malaysia falters in providing support to suicide loss survivors, who themselves are often see an increased risk of suicidal thoughts.
“For every suicide loss, there are 135 people impacted by it,” she said, adding that celebrity suicides can and have caused strings of copycat suicides.
Indeed, the loved one Alia lost had also lost someone important to suicide a few months prior to taking his own life.
When Alia started AWAS, it was only an Instagram account meant to connect her with other suicide loss survivors.
“Surprisingly, a lot of people bereaved by suicide reached out to me, locally and internationally.” People as far away as Canada found solidarity with her cause, she said.
These people who relate to her call her “Kak Ngah.” Why is that? “My loved one used to call me Kak Ngah,” she revealed.
AWAS has given Alia a new sense of purpose, as she dedicates herself to turning her pain into wisdom to help others.
Part of her efforts include advocating for the decriminalisation of suicide, which she lauds as a step forward for Malaysia.
There is still room to improve though. “I think the hardest part of being Malaysian is to admit that you’re struggling. When you actually talk about mental health, there is strength in there.”
Are you suffering in silence? Have you lost someone dear to you? Send a WhatsApp message to AWAS at 010-2344808 or follow AWAS on Instagram.