A Ready Ear Offers Hope, Solace and Relief to Those in Despair

By Ernest Mah Herh Sun

October 2021 FEATURE
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BETWEEN JANUARY AND May this year, The Malaysian Reserve received reports of 53 suicide and 19 attempted suicide cases from Penang. Within the same timeframe, suicide cases for the whole country was at a startling 468 suicide cases, compared to 631 and 609 for the whole of 2019 and 2020, respectively. This means that on average, two people have committed suicide daily since 2019.

Flagging it as a serious public health crisis, Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow had announced that “the rise in these numbers will be given special attention to by the State Health Department, with emphasis on the aspect of mental health.”1

Personalised Struggles

“Though many share a common narrative of the pandemic’s ramifications and the extended lockdown period, each person uses different mechanisms to cope,” explains Saras Pillay, vice chairperson of Befrienders Penang and president of the National Council of Befrienders Malaysia.

“Our language use is centred around compassion and empathy,” says Saras Pillay, vice chairperson of Befrienders Penang and president of the National Council of Befrienders Malaysia.

“Some have been able to come to grips with the situation and move forward fairly positively, but for others the struggles are more vivid, causing extreme bouts of stress and depression.”

Three demographic groups have so far been identified as the worst affected. Business owners and family breadwinners have been badly affected. As Pillay puts it, “Once revenue goes down, everything else will also spiral down with it.” Stress, fear and guilt at not being able to provide for their families or employees, made worse still if the number of dependents are many, weigh heavy on their conscience.

Women are also adversely affected. In the same report by The Malaysian Reserve, suicide cases reported from 2019 to May 2021 involved a staggering 1,427 women. Teenagers between 15 to 18 formed the majority, at 872 persons, followed by 668 women between the ages of 19 and 40. Only 218 cases of men committing suicide were reported during the same period.

Women across the spectrum are generally more prone to depression and suicidal tendencies, observes Pillay, but for them to take their own lives, the reasons are multi-faceted. “Working women are confronted by job losses and career standstills during the pandemic, while heightened tensions compounded by financial woes have exposed stay-at-home mothers to domestic violence, separation and divorce.”

Thirdly, the struggles of the young are decidedly more unique. A stagnated social life lies behind much of the mental health issues; these are aggravated further by examination pressures, an increased workload and long hours working from home, unemployment and an uncertain future; all culminating in their feeling trapped and burned out, prompting some to see suicide as a means of escape.

As a full-time content writer and part-time singer and emcee, Joel Teh’s schedule was already packed solid pre-pandemic. “I was worn out and in need of rest,” says the 29-year-old. He gratefully welcomed the MCO announcement which during the first few months helped him to regain his equilibrium.

He busied himself with hobbies and caught up with friends virtually. But as the months dragged on, life became painfully lonely when one by one, his friends left Penang for work or further studies. Left psychologically marooned without useful distractions – the lockdown indefinitely stoppered his freelancing gigs; even his plans to pursue a Master’s degree were foiled – Teh started experiencing panic attacks more and more often. “This happens usually in the middle of the night or when I’m out walking around the neighbourhood.”

Joel Teh, content writer and mental health advocate.

To manage his crippling anxiety, Teh now seeks counselling which he says has helped him to cope. “It helps also to speak to friends overseas, especially when it’s night time here and I start to feel my anxiety getting the better of me,” he says, adding that to lighten his mental baggage, Teh has also turned to religion for spiritual fulfilment, and to take sporadic breaks from social media and Covid-19-related news.

“I still have the occasional mood swings,” he concedes, “but I’ve learned to deal with my mental health on a day-to-day basis, without stressing over progress.”

Talk it Out, Don't Bottle It Up

According to Pillay, from 2020 to July 2021, Befrienders Malaysia received over 9,630 calls. Of that sum, senior citizens constituted 19% and 24% in 2020 and 2021, respectively. In fact, senior citizens are the group that has reached out most to Befrienders this year. Times have certainly changed; once, discussions surrounding mental health were regarded a taboo by older generations.

“Our language use is centred around compassion and empathy,” says Pillay. “We encourage callers to talk, and we listen to what they are going through and try to understand how they are managing under the circumstances, especially if their family members are dismissive of their feelings. We do not offer advice nor accord judgements, but what we do is to acknowledge the validity of what they are experiencing and to provide emotional support. Our volunteers are also trained in the skills necessary for handling stress calls. Those that call in remain anonymous, with the service confidential and free,” says Pillay.

One such senior citizen caller, who spoke to Penang Monthly on condition of anonymity, describes how Befrienders filled his void during the lockdown, since he could not meet up with his friends in person.

“At first, I was hesitant to call in – I did not want other people to find out and gossip about me. But Befrienders respected my wish to stay anonymous, and to attentively listen to my concerns without being inquisitive, and without prying into my personal life. It helps relieve my anxiety, knowing that I have someone for a listening ear and who respects my privacy,” says the elderly.

Befrienders also extends its service to grieving family members of Covid-19 victims. While visitations are currently not feasible due to movement restrictions, Befrienders continue to accept calls from mourning families to help them through their grief. “We do not hang up until the caller feels comfortable enough to end the call,” says Pillay.

The uptick in suicide cases has renewed calls for sustained suicide prevention efforts, e.g. in making assistance and support structures more accessible to those in need, and to increase the socialisation of its awareness, starting with the de-stigmatisation of mental health issues. Section 309 of the Penal Code still criminalises suicide attempts which former Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail hopes to have repealed in the next Dewan Rakyat session on October 25.

It helps to talk about what is troubling you to someone who listens, who cares about you and who respects you for who you are. Befrienders Penang provides confidential emotional support through phone, email and face-to-face appointments.

  • Call: 04-2910100 (3pm-12am daily)

  • WhatsApp: +6011-56706261 (text only)

  • Email: pat@befpen.org

  • Website: www.befpen.org

Ernest Mah Herh Sun

is currently pursuing his Master’s in English Language Studies at Universiti Malaya. A member of the varsity debating team, he loves singing, enjoys speaking and writing, and dreams of becoming the Malaysian Ryan Seacrest.