Treatment for mental illness is becoming a pressing public health issue in Malaysia, given that barely two years ago, as many as one in three adults were estimated to be living in a state of psychological ill health and at risk of developing a diagnosable mental disorder.
Against the rising demand, pressure is mounting to develop good access to mental healthcare resources. Yet, while the government has done some paperwork to strengthen mental health services, on the ground, access to these services remains riddled with challenges.
Firstly, there is limited availability of mental health specialists, especially in government hospitals. Workforce shortage and uneven distribution of services have resulted in certain states and rural areas being underserved and lacking access to treatment resources.
Affordability is another key barrier. Though public healthcare is low-cost, long waiting times and shortened consultation hours have greatly compromised care quality. Private treatment is an alternative option, but is expensive and far beyond the means of the average Malaysian.
Stigma and negative public attitudes make up the final, but no less damaging, ‘invisible’ barrier. Stigma against mental illness appears both in systemic forms, such as the lack of mental health insurance coverage, as well as social discrimination in the workplace and within family circles. Because of this, the mentally ill suffer unnecessary shame and are discouraged from seeking help for their conditions.
Penang Institute in Kuala Lumpur has produced a policy brief on these three barriers in mental health care, while acknowledging that there are many other issues and challenges that remain to be addressed. The report examines each barrier in greater detail, and recommends specific policy measures to improve access to mental healthcare in Malaysia.
Through this work, the author hopes to generate greater education and awareness about mental health within society. In so doing, she hopes to encourage leaders in various roles, including policymakers, mental health professionals, advocates and community members, to engage in improving mental healthcare for the country and to increase the acceptance of those living with mental illness in the wider community.
Most importantly, the author hopes that this report will help shift the erroneous perception of mental illness as a personal weakness, towards seeing it as a valid health condition that is treatable with professional help. She hopes to encourage those living with mental health conditions to not be ashamed to seek help, and to renew their spirits in working towards recovery and leading a productive, meaningful and consequential life.