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By Balkish Awang
This article is in conjunction with World Health Day which falls on April 7 every year.
KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) – Escalating stress levels in this age of rapid changes and personal uncertainty can, over time, lead to serious health problems such as heart disease, hypertension and mental disorders.
In Malaysia, statistics have shown that the economically disadvantaged group is more susceptible to depression brought about by financial hardship and other pressing challenges.
According to the 2019 National Health and Morbidity Survey, 2.3 percent of Malaysia’s adult population, or half a million people, suffered from depression.
Putrajaya had the highest prevalence of depression at 5.4 percent, followed by Negeri Sembilan (five percent), Perlis (4.3 percent), Sabah (four percent) and Melaka (3.8 percent).
Mental Illness Awareness and Support Association president Anita Abu Bakar said the B40 group (bottom 40 percent of income earners) accounted for the highest number of depression cases at 2.7 percent, followed by M40 group at 1.7 percent and T20 group at 0.5 percent.
“It’s obvious from these statistics that financial problems can influence a person’s emotions and cause high stress levels which can lead to mental health issues,” she told Bernama in an interview recently.
She said even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck Malaysia, the B40 group was already facing cost of living pressures and difficulty finding jobs that paid well.
“Now with the pandemic, job opportunities have lessened while the challenges have grown bigger,” she added.
LOSS OF JOB, INCOME
Loss of employment and source of income is among the major contributors to stress, Anita said, adding that constantly worrying about how to support one’s family and pay the bills can, if left unchecked, lead to mental disorders.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn are having an impact on the mental health of many individuals… it is also a new challenge for people who are already battling mental illness,” she added.
Pointing to studies done in the United States last year, she said four in 10 adults in that nation had reported manifesting anxiety or depressive disorder symptoms.
She said the United States’ KFF Health Tracking Poll (July 2020) found that 36 percent of the respondents reported having sleeping difficulties, 32 percent eating problems, 12 percent an increase in alcohol or drug use and 12 percent worsening of chronic conditions – all due to COVID-19-induced anxiety and stress.
According to Anita, Malaysia experienced increased suicide risks last year following the enforcement of the Movement Control Order (MCO) to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Non-governmental organisation Befrienders Malaysia, meanwhile, received about 4,142 calls from distressed individuals between March 18 and May 16 last year, with more than a third of the callers having had suicidal tendencies.
“People tend to face great stress when they are confronted by psychological, emotional, health and financial problems.
“During the MCO, many people experienced loneliness and a sense of helplessness, as well as huge changes in their lives. Many people also had to endure domestic violence,” she said.
NOT ENOUGH PSYCHIATRISTS
Anita said data has shown that pandemics and epidemics that occurred throughout human history have caused many people to fall prey to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and self-harm.
“This (increase in cases involving mental disorders) is not something new. Even then, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, we were not mentally and physically ready for it,” she said, adding that the government has also been working hard to help people who have been emotionally affected by the crisis.
She added that the psychosocial support helpline, a collaboration between the Health Ministry’s Crisis Preparedness and Response Centre and Mercy Malaysia, received 11,791 calls between March 25 and August last year from individuals seeking emotional support and counselling.
Anita also said that Malaysia did not have enough psychiatrists to meet the needs of the people. She said Malaysian Medics International has stated that Malaysia needed 3,000 psychiatrists but only had 410 as of July 2018.
According to MMI, Malaysia has a ratio of 1.27 psychiatrists for every 100,000 population, which is far lower than the World Health Organisation’s recommended ratio of one psychiatrist for every 10,000 population.
“The government has been making an effort to address the problem but the shortage of experts is one of the greatest challenges faced by the nation in ensuring that all groups are taken care of,” she added.
Commenting on the shortage of psychiatrists in Malaysia, former president of the Malaysian Psychiatric Association Prof Dr Nor Zuraida Zainal said the number is insufficient to handle the rising number of stress-related cases.
She said a survey carried out by the Health Ministry in 2015 showed that 29 percent of Malaysian adults, or one in three adults, suffered from mental health issues.
Dr Nor Zuraida said in psychiatry, stress is defined as external and internal imbalances that can interfere with a person’s physiology and psychology.
She said various factors contribute to the occurrence of stress, among them being biological factors such as hormonal and chemical imbalances in the brain. Diseases and genetic factors can also contribute to stress.
“From the psychosocial aspect, stress can be caused by problems related to family, marriage, relationship, finance, job, studies, lockdown, online learning and others,” she said.
Dr Nor Zuraida also said that stress can contribute to heart disease which is the world’s number one killer.
“Stress itself is not a disease. It is a mental health problem. When a person’s stress level keeps rising, it can lead to the development of depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and others,” she said.
Symptoms of stress include sleeping difficulties, irritability, tiredness, inability to focus, feelings of frustration and frequent episodes of gastric pain, flu and cough.
“When we notice such symptoms in ourselves or in our friends, it’s best to seek professional help by seeing a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist,” she added.
Translated by Rema Nambiar