Pressures of modern life, such as social and peer pressure, can cause depression. REUTERS PIC

MY heart sank when I read about the death of Robin Williams in 2014. I will always remember Williams as Mork, the lovable and endearing alien character he portrayed in the popular American sitcom, Mork and Mindy (1978-82).

Mork had come to earth from the planet Ork in an egg-shaped spaceship. Little did we know then that Williams, later in life, would be battling depression and dementia, which eventual led to his suicide. The ever-smiling persona that he carried with him throughout his life belied the fears he had hidden from the cameras.

Depression, anxiety and panic attacks are not signs of weakness. They are signs of a person having tried for so long to remain strong. One in three of us go through depression or panic attacks at least once in our lives. According t the National Health and Morbidity Survey 2015, every three in 10 adults aged 16 years and above have some sort of mental problems.

In Malaysia, the prevalence of mental health problems among adults increased from 10.7 per cent in 1996 to 11.2 per cent in 2006, to 29.2 per cent in 2015. The prevalent rise is in Kuala Lumpur which is at 39.8 per cent. The prevalence is in females, younger adults, and those from low income families. By occupation, the prevalence was lowest among government and semi-government employees (26.5 per cent).

The overall prevalence of mental health problems among children is 12.1 per cent for children between five and 15 years old. The prevalence of mental problems in children include peer problems, anxiety, depression, and hyperactivity. There are now 360 registered psychiatrists in the public and private sectors. The ratio of psychiatrists to the Malaysian population is 1: 200,00 (1:10,000 is recommended by the World Health Organisation).

What is shocking is that mental illness is expected to be the second biggest health problem affecting Malaysians after heart disease by 2020. Depression is a common psychological disorder, affecting some 121 million people worldwide.

Depression, or major depressive disorder is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act. It causes feelings of sadness and, or a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease a person’s ability to function at work and at home.

WHO states that depression is the leading cause of disability as measured by Years Lived with Disability and the fourth contributor to the global burden of disease (GBD). GBD is a comprehensive regional and global research programme of disease burden that assesses mortality and disability from major diseases, injuries, and risk factors.

Professor Dr Azhar Zain, a senior consultant neurobehavior physician/psychiatrist and psychotherapist at KPJ Ampang Puteri Specialist Hospital, said there should be more campaigns to create awareness on mental health problems in Malaysia. He said the government should allocate more budget on mental health as we are moving towards a high achieving nation by 2020 .

Mental health disorders are actually treatable, but less than 25 per cent of those affected (in some estimates, less than 10 per cent) receive treatment. For instance, nearly half of the patients with depression remain undiagnosed for years or are inadequately treated. A large number of patients from rural areas remain under the care of religious leaders and may never receive medical treatment. Stigma is still a significant barrier. The majority of patients do not receive evidence-based treatments.

We should prepare Malaysia for the worst case scenario in mental health problems, which is a growing public health concern globally.

There should also be more staff in mental health — psychiatrists , psychotherapists, psychologists , occupational therapists, and nurses.

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The writer is a former Associate Professor at the Academy of Language Studies, Universiti Teknologi Mara, Shah Alam

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