(Stock image for illustration purposes) Stigma devalues a person and affects his self-image.

GOOD mental health is something we all need. It is a feeling of wellbeing, happiness, the ability to cope with life’s many challenges, to accept others and, most of all, to have a positive attitude towards oneself.

Scientific and medical research demonstrates that mental health is a foundation for good health as physical and mental health are inseparable. Despite its increasing significance, the reality is that governments, public health practitioners and citizens alike devote little attention and consequently fewer resources to mental health.

Meanwhile, the suffering caused by mental illness and mental disorders is quite staggering. Patients with mental illness suffer a great deal and are unable to function normally. On top of that, they face discrimination and rejection from the community, and this has a detrimental effect on their recovery.

According to the World Health Organisation, one in four individuals develops a common mental disorder, such as depression or anxiety, every year. Two in every 100 people in our community develop schizophrenia or manic depression (bipolar disorder) in their lifetime. Two to three per cent of all families have a family member who is affected by intellectual disability. Five of the 10 leading causes of disability are mental disorders — depression, substance abuse, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.

The symptoms of a mental disorder may greatly reduce one’s ability to work, study or participate in community life. The disorder could also lead to other health problems, and in some cases, even suicide. To make matters worse, if one suffers from a mental disorder, he may be shunned by the community.

Why do we do so little? According to WHO, on average, the 37 countries and areas in the Western Pacific region devote less than one per cent of their health budgets to the treatment and prevention of mental disorders. Region-wide, one in five individuals who seeks the help of a healthcare professional suffers from a mental disorder. Of this number, only a fraction are properly diagnosed, and of those who are, few ever get treatment or receive appropriate care.

The number of people at risk of developing mental health problems is increasing daily. People in developing and developed countries of the Western Pacific region are becoming increasingly vulnerable to mental illness.

It is believed that depression will be one of the largest health problems worldwide by 2020. Surveys show that mental disorders occur in one in five individuals, or 20 per cent of the world population, each year.

There is growing evidence to show that the burden of disease in societies is gradually but surely moving towards mental diseases. While heart disease, cancer and HIV-AIDS take their toll yearly in the form of death, mental disorders, such as depression, are rapidly becoming a major source of stress not only to the individual and his family, but also to his community.

In Malaysia, most mental health promotions are focused on the individual. We have overlooked other essential factors, such as the environment in which we live in. Is our environment conducive to the development of healthy bodies and minds?

Poorly planned urbanisation and uncontrolled deforestation could contribute to poor mental health of the people. Unstable economic status, increased unemployment, poverty and severe stress have proven disruptive to mental health as well.

When dealing with mental disorders, it is essential to address the stigma attached to it. Stigma devalues a person and affects his self-image. Some of the harmful effects of stigma include refusal to accept illness, delaying or refusing treatment, isolation, fear and shame.

Creating greater awareness of mental health, empowering the mentally sick and their family members to stand up against the stigma and discrimination through education and engaging the public to understand the issues related to mental disorders are some strategies that can be undertaken to de-stigmatise mental illness.

It is important to include the community and environment we live in. We can’t address mental health problems without meaningful participation by the people, stakeholders and government sectors. Mental health is a community, national and global matter.

Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye, Patron, Malaysian Psychiatric Association, Kuala Lumpur

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