The pandemic has taken its toll on the mental health of Southeast Asians; raises the need for more meaningful conversation on how to improve resilience in individuals and communities.
Findings by Singapore’s Institute of Mental Health (IMH) indicate Asians who suffer from mental illness are less likely to seek help than those from other cultural backgrounds.
Asian cultural beliefs and deep-rooted stigma play a significant role in this mindset. The need to ‘save face’ and play up gender stereotypes — where men are discouraged from exhibiting physical or mental weakness — contribute to these misapprehensions surrounding mental health.
According to Associate Professor Dr Ng Chong Guan from the Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA), the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental health prevent individuals suffering from mental disorders from seeking professional help and treatment early.
“Education is the most important step to understanding mental health problems. Like physical illness, mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. For that reason, it is important to educate our communities, employers, schools, and those within government to change the way we think about it,” he says in the Mental Health Handbook, 2019.
A decline in mental health
The past 18 months have been difficult for many. Social-distancing measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 have caused economic activities to slow down, if not grind to a halt, resulting in a significant impact on livelihoods. These same measures have chipped away at the liberties we once took for granted, like meeting with family and friends over dinner, boarding a plane to meet a client, or visiting a parent recovering from surgery.
Despite mass vaccinations being implemented around the world, the virus’s propensity to mutate especially in densely populated regions is expected to prolong the pandemic, and with it the anxiety and helplessness many people feel as they remain isolated from their nearest and dearest.
These factors have had a significant impact on the mental health of Southeast Asians.
In Thailand, the Super Poll Research Center found the pandemic has caused increased stress in 67% of its respondents. Almost 600 calls were made to the government's crisis hotline in March last year compared to just 20 to 40 in the two months prior.
In Malaysia, MMHA recorded a more than two-fold increase in people seeking help related to stress in 2020 compared to 2019. Suicide prevention hotline Befrienders KL received about 107 calls a day in the first few days of the third Movement Control Order (MCO 3.0) which was implemented on 12 May 2021, compared to just 70 a day during the first MCO when it was implemented in March the previous year.
Meanwhile in Singapore, The Straits Times reported that The Samaritans of Singapore, a suicide prevention organisation, received 18% more calls in 2020 than in the previous year with a total of 39,492 suicide and crisis-related calls.
Nanny Eliana, Founder and Regional Account Director of Bridges M&C, had started caring for her mental health well before the pandemic hit.
“In 2008, I was emerging from an expensive divorce, and my then-boyfriend was disentangling himself from a toxic relationship. I wasn’t sure if we were going to be together for the long-term,” she recalls.
“Then the Asian economic crisis hit. One by one, the financial institutions who made up the majority of my then-boyfriend’s clients decided to cancel their contracts, which meant he was unable to support himself, leave alone me. At the time, I was just finding my feet with Bridges M&C but with these challenges, I found it impossible to function, leave alone pitch for new business.”
“I decided to look for a therapist. I didn’t want just someone to talk to, but someone who could help me work through and offer relief from the constant feelings of dread and doom, so I could function optimally again,” shares Nanny, who has been seeing her therapist for 11 years, and counting.
“If it hadn’t been for her, I don’t think I would have persisted in not only building the business but attracting and retaining good clients and colleagues to help build it with me,” she adds.
Creating conversations on mental health
When the Bridges M&C team began exploring the idea of a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative, it was unanimous the initiative should reflect the company’s core competency as a medical and healthcare communications company committed to raising awareness of diseases and healthcare issues.
But it was not until in late 2020, that the idea of the CSR initiative began to take shape, when Nanny was invited to contribute a letter to a literary anthology entitled ‘Letter to my Mother’, which was to be published by Marshall Cavendish and distributed in Singapore and Malaysia.
The prospect of writing a letter to her late mother, although daunting, would not have been complete without shedding light on her father who has paranoid-schizophrenia, and his impact on the whole family.
“When I described the direction of my contribution to the anthology’s editor, Felix Cheong, he revealed other contributors also wrote of stresses within families and mental health issues such as depression in their letters. This was when I realised the anthology’s potential to have a much broader impact by helping raise awareness on mental health. We decided that we would sell the books through our own website as part of the CSR initiative” says Nanny.
Every purchase of the book through the company website includes complimentary delivery to any address in Singapore or West Malaysia, while a portion of the sales will be donated to two charities: the Singapore Association of Mental Health (SAMH) in Singapore and Befrienders KL in Malaysia.
In just over six weeks of the campaign launch, over 100 copies of ‘Letter to my Mother’ have been sold in both countries, with buyers from Singapore, Malaysia, and as far away as Thailand, France, and Germany. The campaign will conclude on World Mental Health Day on the 10th of October.
“In addition to supporting the charities’ good work, our objective is to encourage more people to take better care of their mental health, and seek professional help where necessary,” says Nanny.