Coronavirus: Mental health issues rise during Malaysia's partial shutdown

As businesses ground to a halt, the crippled economy caused many to lose their jobs and incomes. PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR - The coronavirus pandemic is taking a toll on the country's mental health, with the number of suicides rising as a result.

A 35-year-old jockey and a 50-year-old hawker, believed to have been facing financial difficulties because of the outbreak, were found dead in May during Malaysia's movement curbs. The jockey had not been working since the Movement Control Order (MCO) was imposed on March 18.

Earlier this month in Penang, a teenager was found dead after her mother was unable to return home from Singapore to attend a celebration of her coming of age.

Experts say many people are finding it hard to cope with the isolation and economic hardship related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Being in isolation increases the fear and helplessness that someone feels, and this can lead to anxiety and depression," Mr Ardy Ayadali, publicity director of emotional support help centre Befrienders Kuala Lumpur, told The Straits Times.

"When someone is isolated in crowded families or spaces, the environment can get toxic."

Local media had reported a spike in calls to women's aid groups over domestic violence during the MCO.

According to the police, there were 78 suicides nationwide from March 18, when the shutdown began, until June 9. There were 64 suicides in the same period last year.

Malaysian think tank The Centre in April said a study it conducted found that some 45 per cent of 1,084 Malaysian respondents were experiencing varying levels of anxiety and depression during the MCO.

A total of 34 per cent of 4,142 calls received by the Befrienders between March 18 and May 16 were related to the Covid-19 outbreak. Over a third of the calls about Covid-19 were suicidal in nature.

The Health Ministry also reported that it received some 2,500 phone calls and more than 1,000 WhatsApp messages between March 28 and April 12, during the early days of the MCO, on its Psychological First Aid hotline.

Having to adjust to sudden changes related to the movement restriction, and face uncertainties in their finances, employment, education and even obtaining daily provisions or food supplies can be "very stressful, especially in more remote areas, and may worsen loneliness and increase the risk of domestic violence," said Dr Ng Yin Ping, a consultant psychiatrist from Pantai Hospital, Penang.

Befrienders has also received calls from those in quarantine centres who were suffering from anxiety due to the isolation, said Mr Ayadali.

While social movement curbs are aimed at protecting Malaysians from a contagious and potentially fatal virus, they inadvertently put people at risk of deteriorating mental health.

As businesses ground to a halt, the crippled economy caused many to lose their jobs and incomes. Malaysia's unemployment rate climbed to 5.3 per cent in May from 5 per cent in April, according to the Statistics Department last week. Some 10.22 million people have received coronavirus-related aid totalling RM10.9 billion (S$3.5 billion) as of June 26.

Malaysia is not alone in this. The Covid-19 pandemic has the potential to become a global mental health crisis, United Nations experts have warned, with many under severe psychological strain. Nearly 600,000 people have died and over 13 million have been infected worldwide since the Covid-19 pandemic was first reported in China late last year.

After Malaysia began easing its controls and reopening non-essential sectors in May, the number of distress calls to Befrienders related to the pandemic began to drop.

However, experts say the gradual return to "normalcy" may prove to be another stressful adjustment, with so much uncertainty ahead.

"The economic recovery may take a much longer time, thus an overall increased stress on society in general is anticipated," said consultant psychiatrist Teh Ewe Eow, who is part of non-governmental organisation D'Home Mental Health Association of Penang.

The Centre's survey also found that 56 per cent of respondents were more worried about their personal finances after the MCO, compared with 47 per cent during the MCO, as people recognise how the economic fallout may last beyond the restrictions themselves.

Those in need of emotional support should try to seek help, said experts.

Dr Ravivarma Panirselvam, psychiatrist of Hospital Miri in Sarawak, advised people experiencing stress and anxiety to call helplines such as Befrienders, Mercy Malaysia, and Talian Kasih, or access the nearest clinics or hospitals. He said people in a suicidal crisis should seek help at the emergency unit of any healthcare facility.

Mr Ayadali suggested some self-help tips to cope, including sticking to a routine and sleep pattern, staying physically active, and seeking help if it feels like things are getting out of control.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.