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The Mental Toll Of The Pandemic On Young People In Malaysia

Though there has been increased awareness on mental health issues arising from COVID-19, much of the discourse has been centred primarily around middle-aged and working adults. However, it should be acknowledged that mental health issues do not discriminate — just like adults, the young have been significantly impacted mentally and emotionally by the pandemic.

According to police figures, a total of 872 teenagers aged 15 to 18 committed suicide between January 2019 and May 2021. This makes up 51% of the 1,708 suicide cases within that timeframe[1]

These numbers echo the findings of a Universiti Malaya study showing a consistent increase in depressive, anxious and stressful symptoms among their 1,163 respondents across four different movement control orders (MCO) in Malaysia[2]

Source: The Star

The escalation of mental health concerns among the youth (defined by the United Nations as persons aged 15 to 24 years) is especially worrying considering that Malaysia has a national average of only 1.27 psychiatrists per 100,000 individuals. This is much lower than the WHO’s recommended ratio of one psychiatrist per 10,000 of the population[3]. Additionally, it has been found that mental health issues among the young may result in long-term implications that carry on into adulthood[3].

[Mental health stressors] during this period can cause short-term and long-term problems in psychosocial functioning and day-to-day life, including academic performance, relationships, morale and others.[3] – Dr Arman Rashid, SOLS Health Research & Advocacy Director 

Social And Emotional Deficit Due To School Closures

School is one of the defining pillars of the adolescent experience, and not just for academic reasons. At school, children establish friendships and support systems, which in turn become an avenue for them to fulfil their socio-emotional needs[3]. Adolescents prefer to engage with the world freely and often opt to spend more time with friends than family[4]

Source: Pexels

However, the pivot to online learning due to COVID has interfered with their ability to interact face-to-face. A crucial stage of their development is shifted to virtual spaces is shown to negatively impact their emotional well-being as they can no longer socialise the way they normally do in physical school settings. This intensifies the feeling of loneliness amidst lockdown measures. The deprivation of emotional support from teachers and peers has caused many students to feel more detached and withdrawn[3]

The prolonged lockdown has deprived young people of the social connections that are so crucial at this time of life.[1] – Mr Rashed Mustafa Sarwar, UNICEF Representative to Malaysia 

Coping With Open And Distance Learning (ODL)

Online learning has also significantly blurred the lines between personal and school hours. Many students experience heightened anxiety levels from having too many school assignments to complete. Coupled with having to face the glare of the computer screen for hours on end, this has resulted in disruptions to their daily routines and sleeping habits[5]

Online classes are more tiring than physical classes. I only sleep a few hours a night because I have so many assignments. Having to use our laptops early in the morning up to midnight also makes it hard to stay energetic.[5]

Source: Pexels

Taking care of siblings and household chores whilst concurrently undergoing online classes has also contributed to insurmountable stress among students, especially those from poorer backgrounds[5]. Often having to resort to using phones and sharing devices with other schooling children in the household, the digital divide has led B40 students to be disproportionately affected by remote learning. On top of that, inadequate learning facilities within the home pose yet another challenge for them to keep up with academics[6].

University Students Feeling On Edge 

The severity of mental health issues among university students is equally alarming. In July, two UiTM university students died from ruptured blood vessels, reportedly due to extreme stress induced by online learning[7]. Both were in their early 20s.

Source: Kosmo

This shocking incident sparked discourse on student well-being amidst COVID, with more students demanding proactive measures by both the ministry and educational institutions to cater to students’ mental health[8]. However, the persistent rise in cases makes it difficult for students to stay optimistic for a return to normalcy.

Emotionally drained from academic burnout and uncertainty over future educational and employment plans, it is truly an uphill battle for university students to keep their emotions intact amidst COVID. 

Since the implementation of online learning, my university gives weekly assignments on top of other scheduled assignments. The deadlines are definitely shorter. It’s getting harder to juggle between assignments, research and other tasks.[8] – Nur Aiza Rafiqah, a local university student.

Anxiety Induced From Social Media Usage

To overcome the emotional toll of boredom, many students resort to social media as a coping strategy. However, the increased screen time also comes with a cost. 

Source: SCL Health

In a recent study, students aged 17 to 18 years were found to be more anxious compared to their older counterparts[5]. The research suggests that their increased reliance on social media could have played a pivotal role in heightening their anxiety levels. 

Though it is undeniably essential to stay informed with recent developments, especially during lockdowns, the “always-on” facet of social media can cause emotional strain amongst the youth. Fear of contagion is elevated when youngsters become increasingly exposed to negative news surrounding COVID-19, which triggers further anxiety. Moreover, 24/7 media coverage may make it seem like COVID-19 is omnipresent, causing youths to feel more emotionally overwhelmed and apprehensive.

When The House Isn’t A Home

Household environments have a significant impact on a person’s mental health. It is a known fact that financial uncertainty, salary cuts, and job losses due to COVID-19 have resulted in acute distress among adults. What some may not realize, however, is that these emotional ramifications trickle down to their children too. 

Adolescents often bear the brunt of their parent’s financial hardships and frustrations arising from the pandemic. Treated by parents as an outlet for anger and emotional strain[9], it is no surprise that children within such households are likely to develop mental health concerns too[10]

Source: Positive Parenting

I’m struggling a lot by being at home because not everyone is blessed with a stable and happy family. I need to learn how to cope with it.[5] 

WAO’s domestic violence helpline revealed a staggering fourfold increase in the number of calls during MC0 1.0[11]. A total of 4,349 cases of child abuse were reported in 2020 alone by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry[12].

The rise in interfamilial conflicts is certainly a cause for concern as more children are at risk of being victims of neglect, abuse and aggression. 

Source: VNExpress

Amidst these trying times, it is important for us to recognize that not everyone is blessed with a healthy, stable household. We should all play our role in looking out for our peers and giving support when they need it. 

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.[1] 17-year-old female 

Strategies to Cope With Pandemic Anxieties and Mental Health Issues

It is evident that the pandemic hasn’t been easy for many, including the young. If you are personally struggling with mental health at the moment, here are some strategies for you to cope and stay atop your emotions.

#1: Stay connected with people

Maintaining healthy relationships with people we trust is important for our mental well-being. We all need to feel connected — so whether it’s with people you see often or reconnecting with old friends, schedule some time each week to keep in touch.

#2: Relay your worries

The COVID-19 outbreak is unlike anything we have experienced before, and it’s normal if you have felt worried, scared or helpless. Remember: it’s OK to share your concerns with the people you trust – and doing so may help them too.

If you cannot speak to someone you know or if doing so has not helped, you can try reaching out to mental health helplines such as Befrienders (03-76272929) and Talian Kasih (15999 or 019 261-5999 on Whatsapp).

#3: Limit news consumption

It’s good to be informed, but constantly hearing about the pandemic can be upsetting. Consider limiting news to just a couple of times a day and disconnecting from phone, tv, and computer screens for a while.

Remember to obtain news from credible sources – such as JKJAV and the Ministry of Health.

#4: Look after your physical health

Our physical health has a big impact on our mental well-being. It’s important that we abstain from unhealthy patterns of behaviour that end up making us feel worse. Try to eat well-balanced meals, drink enough water and exercise regularly. Good-quality sleep also makes a big difference in how we feel mentally and physically, so remember to get enough rest. 

#5: Seek professional help before it’s too late

If things are going out of hand and you find yourself struggling to cope with everyday life, consider reaching out to a doctor or mental health professional. It’s important to remember that reaching out is not a sign of weakness, but a significant step toward the path of self-care. And the sooner you seek help, the faster you can get back on track. 

Professional help is more accessible and affordable now than ever. Here’s a list of free and affordable mental health services in Malaysia. 

Explore Our Sources:

  1. ​​The Straits Times. (2021). Covid-19 lockdown sees rising mental health concerns among teens in Malaysia. Link
  2. Malaysiakini. (2021). Harapan health committee warns of looming mental illness crisis in Malaysia. Link
  3. The Star. (2021). Suffering in silence. Link
  4. Frontiers. (2021). The Impact of Unplanned School Closures on Adolescent Behavioral Health During the Covid-19 Pandemic in Malaysia. Link
  5. Researchgate. (2021). Psychological Impact of COVID-19 and Lockdown among University Students in Malaysia: Implications and Policy Recommendations. Link
  6. The Star. (2020). MCO: Impact of digital divide deepens with e-learning. Link
  7. (2021). 2 UiTM Students Died Over The Weekend Due To Ruptured Blood Vessels. Link
  8. FreeMalaysiaToday. (2021). After 2 deaths, undergrads plead for solutions over coursework. Link
  9. The Star. (2020). Mental Health: Prioritising children and adolescents. Link
  10. MDPI. (2021). Factors Associated with Mental Health Problems among Malaysian Children: A Large Population-Based Study. Link
  11. Tengku Nur Qistina. (2020). Community responses to Gendered issues during Malaysia’s fight against COVID-19. The London School of Economics and Political Science. Link
  12. Hasbullah, N.E. & Chong, S. (2021). Do more to protect women, children from abuse during lockdown. Link

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