Covid-19 lockdown sees rising mental health concerns among teens in Malaysia

As Kuala Lumpur enters its fourth month of movement curbs, some children and adolescents are finding it hard to navigate the uncertainty and isolation.
As Kuala Lumpur enters its fourth month of movement curbs, some children and adolescents are finding it hard to navigate the uncertainty and isolation.PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: ST FILE

KUALA LUMPUR - While the coronavirus pandemic has caused new mental health issues among some people in Malaysia due to the lengthy lockdowns, pre-existing conditions in others have also become worse, and young people and children are no exception.

A teenager told The Straits Times that cabin fever resulting from being indoors for too long and online learning have exacerbated her feelings of being overwhelmed.

"I am not able to get away from my parents when they argue. They argue a lot, especially when the lockdown first started, and honestly, they still struggle to get along," said the 17-year-old teenager, who asked not to be named.

"Maybe it's the isolation from other people. I'm more irritable nowadays. I wake up and see the same people every day. I also miss eating out at restaurants and my mother finds cooking for the family very taxing."

The teenager, who used to swim as a form of exercise, is now unable to do so as pools are closed during the nationwide lockdown.

When schools were ordered to close in May this year due to a surge in cases, the teen was happy, as she had found it hard to cope in school due to schoolwork and a change in class.

But she later found that it was even more challenging to keep up with virtual lessons, and the thought of the O-level examinations in October troubles her.

"I definitely get more worried about exams. My school held them online recently; it was a stressful experience," she said.

Access to a therapist during this time is made more complicated due to a resurgent wave in Covid-19 numbers nationwide that has seen record deaths and a crippled healthcare system.

Concerns over the risk of contracting Covid-19 while outside has prevented the teenager from seeking help.

"I did have plans to see a therapist but the pandemic has made that practically impossible. I think my parents don't see therapy sessions held online as worthwhile either," she said.

As Kuala Lumpur enters its fourth month of movement curbs, some children and adolescents are finding it hard to navigate the uncertainty and isolation.

According to police figures, a total of 872 children aged 15 to 18 committed suicide between January 2019 and May 2021. This is 51 per cent of the 1,708 suicide cases during the period.

Suicide cases almost doubled on average across all age groups in the first five months in 2021 (94 cases a month) compared with 2019 (51 cases a month).

Befrienders Kuala Lumpur has received phone calls to its hotline from young people seeking help, but it has no data on the number of calls.

Publicity director Ardy Ayadali said the callers sought help because of effects from the pandemic. "Some of the reasons include prolonged isolation, coping with online schools, toxic family dynamics, and all these lead to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression."

The United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (Unicef) representative to Malaysia, Mr Rashed Mustafa Sarwar, said: "The prolonged lockdown has deprived young people of the social connections that are so crucial at this time of life.

"Children have been out of school and have missed out on learning and socialisation milestones. Their parents may have lost their jobs, adding to their stress. At the extreme, children may be stuck at home with an abuser," he said in a statement on July 1.

Malaysia must invest in expanding mental health services, including systematic psychological screening and support for young people in schools and communities, he added.

Meanwhile, the teenager whom ST spoke to is trying out alternative strategies to cope.

"I started to bake and cook to escape the pressure and stress. I've also started to knit," she said.


Getting help

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

Mental well-being

Fei Yue’s Online Counselling Service: eC2.sg 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)

Counselling

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