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Young and suicidal in Malaysia

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Wong Soak Koon explores what we can do to help those unable to cope with the pressures and anxieties of life.

The tragic suicide of a 16-year-old Malaysian girl has sent shock waves reverberating, the more so when it is learnt that netizens, whom she desperately polled, told her to die.

What could have motivated her to end her life and what makes people so callous that they want to see someone die? There is no easy answer but what is clear is that mental health can no longer be swept under the carpet whether in the family or the larger society.

In an astutely discerning observation on the human mind, the novelist Virginia Woolf says, “Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms.”

Everyone of us, the so-called mentally robust or the depressive, is bombarded by countless feelings and thoughts daily, imaged as “atoms” by Woolf. Some of these “atoms” have the “sharpness of steel”. I really like Woolf’s honesty in concluding that all of us, even seemingly “normal” people, can fall into dark moods on certain days.

This awareness should make us wary of categorically dismissing depressive people as weaklings. When we judge unfeelingly, we deny our own vulnerability and we perpetuate a culture of shame so that depressive people suffer in silence.

Public discussions, workshops are essential for the general public, mental healthcare professionals and others to engage in constructive conversations on anxiety disorder, depression and related issues.

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The days when the mentally ill are shunted to badly run assylums may not be over yet. Here the relevant Ministries clearly have a lot more work to do. A recurrent trope in Victorian literature is “the mad woman in the attic” and we may still have some such unfortunate soul, male and female alike, young or old, hidden away in attics somewhere in Malaysia.

My focus in this piece is on the young. Youth is an unsteady season of identity formation, a time of contrary emotional and mental pulls as young people struggle to make choices about studies, careers and relationships.

In an increasingly competetive, capitalist world, where style and “packaging” reign (ably aided by the advertising industry ), youths come under tremendous pressure to look and sound good.

The inner lives of young people, their anxieties, doubts, fears are buried deep in the psyche. Peer pressure to look and act in a certain way, to buy a certain product if one wants to be accepted can leave a young person feeling very lonely, almost like an outcast.

Besides peer pressure, parents can have such high expectations, young people are unable to voice doubts. I have often heard this line: “Oh, I can’t worry my parents. They expect me to succeed”.

One of the most important ways to prevent a suicidal youth from acting on his dark desire is to talk compassionately with him. But how often do parents have the time and readiness for deep listening and calm, meaningful dialogue? One of the saddest sentences I have heard from students in my long years of teaching is : “I can’t talk to my parents.”

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Yet it is also good to understand the stress of busy time-bound parents. Some parents hold down two jobs to make life more amenable and thus quality time is limited.

How can parents be assisted? Perhaps it is helpful to go back to this truism that “it takes a village to raise a child”. If the norm today is the nuclear family, then where is one to find that “village” especially since urban living does tend to isolate each household?

All is not lost. There can be resource persons, formal or informal, who can help communicate with youths in our community besides the paid psychiatrist. It could be a trusted relative, a caring teacher-mentor, a sports coach, a community leader, mature and non-judgemental religious elders and so on.

Acting as a caring “village”, such figures can help parents look out for signs of distress among youths such as altered eating and sleep patterns, sudden introversion followed by extreme high spirits. Early help may prevent a downward spiral.

The causes of anxiety and depression can be numerous and even simultaneous. Trained psychiatrists have noted some of these causes: being bullied, low self esteem after being constantly compared with high-achieving siblings or peers, dysfunction in the family, the dislocation associated with constant change when parents relocate frequently for professional reasons and so on. In fact, one may say that the causes are as numerous as youths are different. Even the unbridled consumption of junk food, often snacks loaded with refined sugar, can affect moods.

More alarming is a general sense of malaise and ennui among some young people that has no easily discernable or definitive cause(s). Reputable, trusted professional help must be sought without fear of embarassment or shame. For those not well-heeled, who therefore cannot afford expensive psychiatrists, there should be government- run counselling services staffed by excellent personnel.

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In her riveting short story titled “Night” in which she exposes the inner tensions of a 14-year-old girl, Canadian writer Alice Munro invites us into the anxious thoughts of her young protagonist. The teengager’s alarming observations, incessant yet unvoiced, intrude into her consciousness: “It was all inward – this uselessness and strangeness I felt”; “I was not myself”.

Mental illness among young people now gets the attention of ministers and government figures. In Subang Jaya, state assemblywoman Michelle Ng Mei Sze has initiated a mental health task force comprising medical professionals and volunteers. Among the objectives: to train community leaders on suicide prevention, to identify the signs of suicidal tendencies, to engage in important conversations that can open up issues often swept under the carpet. Equally important is promoting resilience and wellbeing among young people which the task force also looks into.

Returning to the tragic death of the teenager mentioned earlier, the baleful effect of social media and netizens cannot be ignored. An MP and lawyer, Ramkarpal Singh, suggested that those netizens who voted for her to die should be guilty of abetting suicide.

While it is hard to monitor social media activities, it is incumbent on giant internet and digital companies to continually upgrade and maintain stringently their security technology and emergency services.

In addition, values like kindness, compassion, humility, taught by all great religions, can be promoted on social media even if these values may seem boring, conservative, not “cool”. The sensational, the bizarre, the edgy and the abusive will sell – and so it is all right?

Let me end with the words of the poet, John Donne, who reminds us that the loss of any life diminishes everyone of us, “therefore send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee”.

This article was first published in the Malay Mail Online.

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