As Covid-19 cases surge in Thailand, more seek help to deal with mental load

Coronavirus caseloads in Thailand are surging - hitting a record 20,000 daily infections for the first time last week.
Coronavirus caseloads in Thailand are surging - hitting a record 20,000 daily infections for the first time last week.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - Tammy (not her real name) has been counting down the days to the end of her 14-day quarantine. She finds herself unable to eat or sleep and, more often than not, feels stressed out.

Five of her 10 household members have come down with Covid-19, including her 72-year-old mother, who is severely ill. The rest who do not have the virus, like Tammy, 26, have been in isolation for the past week.

During their daily video calls, Tammy can hear her mother's laboured breathing as she lies in her hospital bed, hooked up to a ventilator. It hurts her to speak, so they don't say much.

"I know she doesn't want me to worry about her, so she says she is busy and tries to end the calls quickly," said Tammy, who gets emotional when they hang up.

"I always wonder if it will be my last time seeing her."

The anxiety gets worse late at night.

"When you're alone with your thoughts, you just think the worst," said Tammy, who works in e-commerce and copes by chatting with friends in the wee hours.

Mounting anxiety, stress and depressive thoughts as a result of the global pandemic is a worldwide phenomenon as the virus leaves its mark on all of society, often taking the most out of less fortunate communities that were already struggling.

And just as coronavirus caseloads in Thailand are surging - hitting a record 20,000 daily infections for the first time last week - mental health advocates and help groups report an increasing number of people who desperately need a listening ear or a helping hand.

"Besides job insecurity and fears of the virus, Covid-19 has definitely played a part in surfacing existing issues," Samaritans of Thailand chairman Trakarn Chensy told The Straits Times.

"With the lockdowns, where people are confined to their homes more often, we do find more people calling in for domestic disputes and family violence."

In the first half of this year, the Samaritans of Thailand's phone and online help channels received 9,600 calls. This is set to surpass the 10,609 calls made in the whole of 2020, said Mr Trakarn. Unfortunately, he added, the recent lockdown in multiple Thai provinces has forced their call centre in Bangkok to close.

Currently, they operate an online chat platform and a call-back service, but some callers are reluctant to leave their phone numbers on an answering machine.

The organisation received 7,676 calls in 2018 and 9,229 calls in 2019.

Mr Trakarn said about 15 per cent of all calls do involve talk about suicide, which is "a lot more than previously".

He added: "Some call and say they only have 20 baht (S$0.80) left in their savings and they don't know what they're going to do."

Even before the pandemic, the rate of suicide was already climbing year on year in Thailand. But after Covid-19 hit, the figure increased from 6.64 suicides per 100,000 population in 2019 to 7.37 in 2020, according to national statistics.

The authorities in 2019 said a suicide attempt happens every 10 minutes in Thailand.

"For suicides, it's not as simple as saying that Covid-19 causes one to commit suicide. It's usually the case that one already faces years of stress and anxiety from existing factors and the impact of virus is the tipping point," said Mr Sakson Rouypirom, director of the Sati Foundation, a non-profit that focuses on healthcare and education needs of at-risk youths.

When the pandemic hit, the organisation joined forces with other civic groups to form Covid Relief Bangkok, distributing medical and food supplies to the elderly and communities with lower incomes. But it was intent on doing more than feed people.

"Mental health is something we are very concerned about. We have started doing mental health checks with those we help," said Mr Sakson, 43, who said his volunteers are trained in psychological first aid and can identify mental health issues in the communities they visit.

Besides day-to-day financial and health stresses, there is also a lot of anger building in society because of the country's spiralling virus situation, said help groups.

With news and social media filled with reports of surging deaths and cases, and grim outlooks for the economy, Mr Sakson said: "People are venting a lot online, and that's one way they express their anxiety and anger."

"Thailand is at a down point, physically, economically and mentally."

Mental health advocate Amornthep Sachamuneewongse, 31, believes that a listening ear can make a difference to those who are contemplating suicide.

Having survived two suicide attempts himself, Mr Amornthep, who was diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia, has launched a peer support network and mental health mobile app.

The app, Sati, allows users to chat with "listeners" and share their worries or thoughts at any time of the day. Since it launched in April, it has about 3,000 users and 1,200 volunteer "listeners" trained by the Department of Mental Health.

Mr Amornthep says the pandemic is very likely to cast a shadow on mental health issues in the years to come.

"We need to start talking about mental health in the right way by removing the stigma and investing in infrastructure to support mental health," he said.

"I think the younger generations are more comfortable talking about this, but it's going to take a while for everyone to open up," said Mr Amornthep, adding that it is not just the responsibility of mental health professionals, but even employers to do frequent check-ins on their employees as people juggle work and family while working from home.

Mr Trakarn hopes people can seek treatment for their mental health in the same way they would see a doctor for conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

"It is fine to seek help. I would like to encourage everyone to know that it's completely okay to not feel okay," he said.

Getting help

National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868 (8am - 12am)

Mental well-being

Fei Yue’s Online Counselling Service: website (Mon to Fri, 10am to 12pm, 2pm to 5pm)
Institute of Mental Health’s Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222 (24 hours)
Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444 (24 hours) /1-767 (24 hours)
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm) 
Silver Ribbon Singapore: 6386-1928/6509-0271  (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788 (Mon to Fri, 2.30pm to 5pm)/ Tinkle Friend website (Mon to Thu, 2.30pm to 7pm and Fri, 2.30pm to 5pm)


TOUCHline (Counselling): 1800-377-2252  (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800 (Daily, 10am to 10pm)