When help and compassion, not condemnation, is needed

Several days ago, a 16-year-old girl from Batu Kawah in Sarawak posted a disturbing question on Instagram, asking if she should live or die. Of those who responded to her poll, 69% said she should die.

Why would anyone do that? Although investigations are underway, those who responded should have recognised that the girl’s question was probably a cry for help. It was not a bid to seek attention, a boast or a dare. If her friends had realised that her social media posts were her way of saying goodbye and alerted her family or the authorities, she might still be alive today.

Perhaps those who supported the option for her to take her life were not aware that suicide is a crime in Malaysia. More importantly, if they were complicit, they too may be punished.

We tend to treat those with mental health issues the same way we treat the disabled: the afflicted are confined to the house and kept out of the public eye. We know very little about the matter. Sometimes we do not wish to be bothered by it, and we ignore its impact on individuals, families, society and the nation.

There are many reasons why people feel they cannot cope with life. They grieve, are depressed, suffer from chemical or substance addictions, have undue stress in their lives, undergo a change in social or financial status, or feel that they have simply lost the will to live.

The young are at risk due to relationship problems, examination pressure, bullying or family issues. But the old are not immune either – they could be affected by the death of a spouse or pet, an illness or loneliness. The ability to cope depends on the individual. Some deal better with problems than others.

Doctors should be the first line of professional support. People may also seek out charitable organisations that offer counselling. Some may seek advice from their religious elders. But whatever the situation, warning signs must not be ignored and help must be offered.

The health ministry could provide more funds for mental health carers and to boost public awareness of the perils of mental health problems. Laws may need to be changed, because to press criminal charges on a person who has unsuccessfully attempted suicide would be to fail him or her twice. In their eyes, perhaps they attempted to kill themselves because they felt that they or others had let them down. If we prosecute them, we might as well give them a loaded gun or a rope to hang themselves with. When people attempt suicide, breaking the law or religious principles are the least of their concerns.

Our duty is to provide professional help coupled with emotional support from family and friends. Compassion is needed, not criminal conviction.

If Malaysians want to show that we are a caring and compassionate nation, we have to be willing to listen sooner rather than later, and ensure that help is readily and easily available.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.