KUALA LUMPUR: One in every three adults in the country is grappling with mental health issues, whether they realise it or not.
Startling and worrying findings shared by the Health Ministry have also revealed an increase in the number of women suffering from poor mental health.
The ministry’s just-released National Health Morbidity Survey (NHMS) revealed a drastic two-fold increase in the number of mental health patients from a decade ago.
The problem was mainly caused by financial difficulties, failure to meet expectations and pressure from surrounding environment.
It is also learned that many young adults were suffering from mental issues because of poor parenting and environmental factors, among others.
Deputy director-general of health (public health) Datuk Dr Lokman Hakim Sulaiman told the New Straits Times that the survey conducted last year revealed that 4.2 million out of 14.4 million Malaysians aged 16 and above suffered from mental issues.
He warned that failure to address the problem would spell disaster for them.
“Most mental illnesses don’t improve on their own and, if left untreated, may get worse and cause other serious problems,” he said.
Dr Lokman said Malaysians should be alert for signs and symptoms of mental problems, such as prolonged sadness, constantly feeling irritated, inability to concentrate, and feeling excessive fear, worry and anxiety.
Other red flags included loss of interest in doing routine chores, becoming withdrawn as well as a drastic change in eating and sleeping habits. They would be in the advance stages of the problem if they had suicidal thoughts and begin to hallucinate.
“When they notice these signs, they should seek medical attention.”
Experts dealing with mental health patients, he said, were trained to help them with the problem, including ways to cope with stress and prescribing medication.
The existing network to help mental patients would also point them to the right activities, physical recreation and support groups.
“Aside from talking to friends and family, having hobbies, spending time alone, leading a healthy lifestyle, having good sleep and building on spirituality helps with the problem,” said Dr Lokman.
The survey also identified push factors that had been driving Malaysian women off the edge.
“Gender discrimination, overwork, domestic violence and sexual abuse are the main problems they face, and that is affecting their mental health.
“There is also a link between the rise in mental health issues and negative media influence,” Dr Lokman said, adding that the socially-defined roles of Malaysian women, like in many parts of the world, were not helping to alleviate the problem.
Mental health issues among Malaysian young adults (aged 18 to 35 years) were mainly linked to family issues like parents’ separation and financial difficulties.
Dr Lokman said the ministry was not discounting the likelihood that the rise in the number of those suffering from mental health problems was because of the increased awareness among caregivers who reported the cases.
“The study reveals figures but not what caused the mental problems. The ministry is in the midst of probing the findings and has roped in academicians, psychologists and psychiatrists to analyse the results.”
Experts on mental health, he added, also took note that the spike in illness was not exclusive to Malaysia as the global trend for the past 20 years had been consistent with the survey’s findings.
Meanwhile, the ministry’s psychiatry services technical adviser Dr Toh Chin Lee said adults generally suffered from depressive and anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and substance abuse.
Dr Toh, who is also a senior consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, also warned of medical conditions that could trigger depression.
Among them, he said, were faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetic problems and unmanaged stress.
“Depression is a disorder that can be easily treated. But those with severe depression or those who do not respond to first-line treatments will need to seek specialist help.”
Dr Toh also spoke about the trend of coping with depression by taking up bad habits, such as smoking and drowning their sorrows in alcohol.
“Nicotine in cigarettes provides a short-term relief from stress. Then the relief wears off, and the ‘rebound’ effect kicks in to increase the stress level higher than before.
“Alcohol, meanwhile, makes nerve cells in the brain “less excited”, causing brain function to slow down. This is evident when speech is altered, the thinking process becomes hazy, the body reaction slows down and vision is impaired.”
The Health Ministry’s Mental Health Unit head and public health specialist Dr Nurashikin Ibrahim, in pressing on the need for those with poor mental health to seek help, said in extreme cases, the disease could lead to more problems like severe substance and alcohol abuse.
“The effects of poor mental health are both severe and prevalent. It is more common than depression.
“People with poor mental health may resort to negative coping skills that can manifest as substance abuse, violence, isolation and eating disorders.
“These types of coping strategies can hurt social relationships, make pre-existing problems worse and, in the worst-case scenario, lead to suicide,” said Dr Nurashikin.