Mental health of Malaysians at stake, warns Penang Institute


KUALA LUMPUR: The government has been urged to improve the quality of mental services and increase the psychiatric workforce as more cases of mental problems are being reported.

Policy Analyst at the Penang Institute, Lim Su Lin, said the shortage of core mental health professionals was a serious barrier to achieving optimal mental healthcare.

Commenting on a statement by Health Ministry deputy director general Dr Jeyaindran Sinnadurai on April 2 that most mental health departments were currently overburdened and understaffed, Lim said:

“To increase the supply of workers, the government should increase postgraduate scholarship funding for medical students who wish to advance a career in psychiatry and clinical psychology.”

Lim suggested, in a statement today, that the Health Ministry make it compulsory for housemen to go on psychiatry postings during the housemanship training programme, as a way to expose and encourage more to go into mental healthcare.

Also, the ministry should look into training general practitioners in primary health clinics to provide mental health care. As the first point of contact, these doctors are well placed to detect risk and refer patients to mental health services.

Lim noted that Singapore had already rolled out such programmes, and studies had shown that these were effective in early detection of psychological problems.

Pointing out the dire situation, Lim said recent government statistics showed that from 2009 to 2013, psychiatrists registered the lowest increase among all categories of clinical specialists in Malaysia, and that in 2013 Malaysia had 0.13 psychiatrists per 10,000 population, far lower than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average of 1.31.

There was an even greater paucity of clinical psychologists, the other core branch of mental health providers, Lim noted.

A national workforce statistics report noted that in 2011 there were merely 16 full-time clinical psychologists working in the public and private sector, while another 26 were visiting or part-time workers.

Lim said a recent parliamentary reply revealed that as of Jan 31 this year, the job quota for clinical psychologists serving under the Health Ministry had been capped at 15, and out of that, 14 positions had been filled.

“In 2015, the National Health and Morbidity Survey reported a 29.2% prevalence of psychiatric morbidity for adults aged 16 and above, an almost three-fold increase from 10.7% in 1996 (children and adolescents reported a 12.1% prevalence).

“Increasingly, more mental health-related incidents are appearing in the news. The reports range from rising workforce depression to more shocking incidents, like the case of a mother suffering from postnatal depression who took her child’s life, or an ex-convict who attempted suicide at a Monorail station in Brickfields.”

Over the past five years, the number of follow-up cases seen at psychiatric outpatient clinics in public hospitals has risen steadily – from 525,000 cases in 2013 to 587,000 cases in 2017.

Lim said the nation’s escalating mental health needs signalled a need for more qualified mental health professionals to deliver service.