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Shedding Light on Mental Health Stigma

30 Jun 2021

Although mental health issues have been made widely known in Malaysia, the misconceptions towards mental health in our community are still rampant. According to Mental Illness Awareness & Support Association, mental illnesses are expected to be the second highest form of health problem among Malaysians by 2020. According to National Health and Morbidity Survey (2019) indicated that there is total of 424,000 children facing mental health problems in Malaysia. Concerns towards patients’ delay in seeking help or receiving treatments due to different kinds of stigma, including social, cultural beliefs, misconceptions and little acceptance in the society, were highlighted. Therefore, overcoming stigma to increase public confidence to look for mental health support is needed.

Sharing the concerns towards the stigma in mental health services, IMU (International Medical University) Master of Counselling students held an ethics forum, entitled Shedding Light on Mental Health Stigma, on 22 May 2021 from 3:00pm-5:45pm. We invited eminent speakers who work passionately towards eliminating stigma in their professions. Their diverse perspectives had illuminated and unpacked the issues of stigma in Malaysia.

Agenda of the Day
Michelle Chong Clinical Psychologist Relate Malaysia Understanding and Changing Stigma Being a Mental Health Advocate
Lim Su Lin Chung Bhin Han Research & Advocacy Manager Research & Liaison Officer Thrive Well Mental Illness and Structural Stigma: What It Is and How to Address It
Dr Ng Yin Ping Consultant Psychiatrist Pantai Hospital Penang Mental Health Stigma from the Viewpoint of a Psychiatrist

There was also a 30- 45 minutes dialogue-cum-Q&A session after the speaker’s individual sharing.

Below are some of the snapshots on students’ experiences while organising the event:

Ching Wei Chean Chairperson of this Event
It has been a fruitful journey since the initial sketch till the actual day of the forum. Despite the rising awareness on mental health stigma in Malaysia, the topic itself has yet to be explored on a deeper level. Hence, we decided to do so. It has been our greatest pleasure to have our panel speakers on board as we journey along to shed light on mental health stigma in Malaysia.

My greatest take-away from the forum was how often we may overlook mental health as a failure in coping rather than an actual physical health condition. For instance, it is often being perceived as normal to consume medication prescribed by the doctor once we were diagnosed with an illness. In contrast, if the diagnosis was a mental disorder, so often people would seek alternative treatments, potentially leaving medication as the last resort.

Overall, it was surely an eye-opening experience for me to witness, especially the dialogue session among four speakers. I’m certain that such a discussion would not end here, as I believe more is to come to keep the discussion on mental health stigma going. As quoted by former US President Bill Clinton, “Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all”.

Wong Sheau Tyan One of the Committee Members of the Event
I appreciate the whole experience as a committee as well as a participant for this event. It guided me to observe stigmas that happen around me, examine what’s within me and got to know more about stigma and myself. I see that mental health stigma may grow as one engages with the world on a daily basis, for example, hearing a negative comment on a person who struggle with mental illness or learning that ‘active and cheerful’ is one of the job requirements may direct us to believe that mental illness should not be talked about.

On the other hand, stigma can be starved and shrunk when I started to have more self-awareness and take up the responsibility to challenge my own thoughts and beliefs with new information, to be willing to shift my current frame of reference. For example, how do I define ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’, where did I learn that medication can be harmful, do I really understand the medicines and how do I perceive myself in a help-seeker role.

Lastly, I learnt to also mention about how we can provide quality support to people who struggle with mental illness so that they can claim back their opportunities to make contribution to the society

Lye Ca-Ryn One of the Moderators cum Emcee in the Event
Overall, I enjoyed the process of organising the forum with my classmates who took on various roles in sub-committees including marketing, social media management, design, speaker liaisons. The weekly meetings were helpful to keep everyone updated on the progress of the event management. I could see the amount of effort and initiative that was collectively being put as a team to make this event flow smoothly. During the forum, I experienced tremendous support behind the scenes from my classmates who were proactively dealing with technical issues and handling unexpected challenges. It was comforting and the experience motivated me to be more present and to do the best I can to moderate the event.

As a moderator, one of the things I wish I could improve on is to create more engagement with the audience. I am grateful that the speakers had sent their presentation slides to us in advance; and were co-operative and accommodating during the forum.

My biggest takeaway from the forum is becoming aware that I myself, as an individual, have the power to make a difference by enriching myself with more knowledge pertaining to mental health and learning to hold a safe space for myself and others to have authentic and vulnerable conversations. Besides that, I am wondering what role I can play or how I can contribute towards addressing stigma from the structural or policy perspective.

Event Committee Members:

Advisor: Dr Teoh Gaik Kin

Chairperson: Derrick Ching Wei Chean

Committee members: Lim Chu Yueh, Wai Kar Yan, Low Poh Yi, Wong Chun Moon, Lye Ca-Ryn, Michelle Saw Shi Min, Lui Hui Yin, Cheah Yuan Yuan, Tharishinypriya A/P Thirunavakarasu, Kerk Qian Wei, Shveta A/P Jayaraman, Tiara Wong Hwei Juin, Yang Ying Qi, Kuah Rui Ning, Tan Su Wen, Wong Sheau Tyan, Lim Shuang Ao, Lean Yi Wen

Closing stigma
Start where you are at and create more safe spaces for individuals who are struggling with mental health challenge, which we can all play a role.

For further information about stigma affecting mental health, please read:

MIASA website (Mental Illness Awareness and Support Association)

Resolving mental illness issues in Malaysia

National Health and Morbidity Survey 2019 Key Findings

Written by Wai Kar Yan, student of Master in Counselling Cohort 1/20 Reviewed by Dr Teoh Gaik Kin

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