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For too long we have swept the problems of mental illness under the carpet.

Psychopath, crazy, mental, insane, mad, deranged, lunatic — these are among the words we are familiar with whenever mental illness is broached.

The condition has, for a long time, been associated with solitary confinement, painful treatments and public derision. At one point in history, a person with the condition was also thought to be possessed by evil spirits; faith healers and clerics would often be summoned to exorcise the “demons”.

In Malaysia and many other countries, there is a social stigma associated with mental illness, shaped, most often, by superstitious beliefs and misconception.

Clinical scientists and mental health advocates say the biggest challenge today is to dispel public perception of mental illness and convince people that it is a “treatable medical condition”. And, to achieve that, the matter “has to be talked about openly”, they say.

“When one talks about it, it is refreshing and inspirational, and brings a whole new light to the matter,” says a local celebrity who once suffered a bout of depression.

Malaysia has its fair share of mental issues — suicide, depression and psychopathic cases — often the result of loneliness, failure, loss of a loved one or neglect.

Reportedly, mental illness is expected to be the second biggest health problem affecting Malaysians after heart disease next year, which, this Leader must point out, is only weeks away.

Latest data from the National Health and Morbidity Survey says three in 10 adults aged 16 and above in Malaysia suffer from mental health disorder.

We must be firm in our acceptance of mental health problems, says Mental Health Promotion Advisory Council member Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye. He said until today, “mental” and “health” cannot be phrased in the same sentence. “We need to encourage dialogue on mental health issues. One should not be ashamed to seek help.”

The Health Ministry’s ongoing “Let’s Talk Malaysia” campaign is about raising awareness on the subject. There is so much material on mental illness, a delicate and “universally-dodged” subject, says a psychiatrist.

He says mental illness must be brought “out of the shadow” and dealt with. For too long we have swept the problems of mental illness under the carpet.

This Leader hopes that 2020 would not be another year where the subject is set aside. On Wednesday, the country’s first mental health handbook was launched, a joint effort by the Malaysian Psychiatric Association, Malaysian Mental Health Association and Pfizer Malaysia Sdn Bhd.

About time, too. The handbook is a guide to help Malaysians deal with mental health issues and information on how to reach out to someone with mental health problems. There is also a directory of mental health services in the country.

But what is more pressing is the need for a National Strategic Action Plan on Mental Health (2020-2025), which was supposed to be launched in September. A Health Ministry official, however, said it would only be implemented next year.

This Leader verily hopes so. It is time we start treating mental illness as a medical condition. Time to face our fears — when we do that “we gain strength, courage, and confidence”, so said Theodore Roosevelt, American statesman and the 26th United States president.

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