Depression: A problem we like to ignore

depressA stark message greeted the friends on the Facebook page of Teh Wen Chun. “Cremate my body and release the ashes into the sea. No need tombstone and funeral. Goodbye.”

Soon after he wrote his poignant farewell, Teh jumped off a flat near his university in Penang. According to his family and friends, the 20-year-old Electrical and Electronic Engineering student was a victim of cyber bullying. The pressures of being targeted forced him to take his own life.

A few days, earlier, most of us gave only a cursory glance to the following stories.

Chan Syek Teng was only 30 years old when she threw herself from a high rise building. Her short life was beset with depression, an early marriage, domestic violence, and an allegedly abusive husband. Unable to cope with the pressures of being a wife and mother of four and juggling her life as a working woman, Chan simply gave up.

In Nilai, 15-year-old S Pravin died after the hospital treatment he received for ingesting insecticide failed. Although his father claimed that he had been forced to drink the poison by a group of bullies, his best friend alleged that he took his own life because the girl of his dreams had spurned him. The police are still investigating the claims.

In Malaysia today, most people seldom think about mental health. Public awareness about this subject is painfully inadequate.

We invite celebrities and members of royalty to make grand speeches on World Mental Health Day and perhaps organise a charity walk and a makan or two, but for the rest of the year, most of us show only superficial concern.

We may take greater interest if a member of our family, or a close friend, is affected and maybe takes his own life.

Many of us treat people with mental health issues as some would deal with a family member who is disabled, hiding him away in a back room..

When we have heart problems, we are advised to take medication, mind our diet and exercise in moderation. Why don’t we treat mental health like heart disease? In other words, why don’t we seek treatment for affected members of our family?

Instead of befriending someone with mental health issues, we ignore them, thus adding to their sense of isolation and rejection. This heightens their feeling of being unloved and unappreciated.

Exercise releases useful chemicals in the brain to give us that feel-good factor. In this modern hectic world, few have time to exercise, but many can afford to spend hours in front of the television or games console.

We consume alcohol, thinking this will calm us down. Instead, we create a vicious cycle, perpetuating a spiral of further dependency and violence.

We undervalue the effect of discussion and expressing ourselves. Instead, we hide away and suffer in silence.

We shun counsellors, social workers and doctors because we do not want others to be burdened by our problems.

Some of us are more vulnerable than others, and it is important that we convey the message to those who are depressed that help is readily available. In some cases, the family doctor is the first point of help. Others may want to rely on the services of charities like the Befrienders or the Samaritans, where anonymity is guaranteed.

Many people with mental health issues are told to “snap out of it”. In the majority of cases, they can’t, and professional help may be necessary. Family and close friends can play an invaluable role here.

However, it is difficult to persuade a person with mental health problems to seek aid until and unless he admits the problem.

More funding, increased awareness and a wider exposure to the perils of mental health problems can help those who need help and support those who have to care for the sufferers.

Mariam Mokhtar is an FMT columnist.

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