Two days ago, Malaysia was shocked by the news of an 8-month-old baby murdered in a very disturbing way. Baby Wan Mohamad Afiq Wan Roslan’s body was found smeared with salt and kept in a sack underneath the kitchen table in a house at Kampung Sungai Dua in Bachok, Kelantan. The baby is believed to be murdered by his own father. Wan Mohamad Afiq was found with bruises on his body, especially at the neck. It was reported that the murderer claimed that “angel’s voices” told him to smear his baby with salt before prompting him to kill the baby. It is believed that the father, a 40-year-old gardener, is involved in heretical teachings, and is said to have mental health issues.

Mental health issues are being seen increasingly in recent times. The 2015 National Health Morbidity Survey stated that mental health conditions or illnesses would be the second biggest illness to affect Malaysians, after heart disease. According to the World Health Organization (WHO),

“Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

An individual’s mental health condition can affect their daily living patterns, their relationships with the people around them, and even their physical health. On the other hand, the factors in people’s lives such as their interpersonal connections and their physical health can also contribute towards their mental health condition. Mental health conditions and illnesses, like any other illness, is able to be managed with the proper medication and treatment, and people with mental illnesses are able to live a quality life, and some are even able to recover, especially if they have been diagnosed and treated early on.

This seems like an ideal situation, where people who find that they need help for mental health issues go to seek help for them, like they would for any other illnesses. But the sad reality is that the stigma that surrounds mental health issues in Malaysia causes people who really need the help to avoid seeking help due to the discrimination that they face, and the embarrassment due to the “what will people think” mentality. They thus are ashamed of something that is out of their control which they need help for. This stigma is an unnecessary addition to the burden and pain that they already have to bear.

Another situation that is prevalent in many Asian communities is that they do not consider mental health issues as a legitimate medical issue which needs professional help and treatment. Cultural and religious influences have deep roots in the stigma against mental health, where it is seen as a spiritual illness, often tied to demonic possessions, punishment from divine beings, or an affliction in the soul, among other things. The mindset that mental health issues are a supernatural phenomenon further discourages people from seeking professional help from trained psychologists and therapists, instead going to mediums and spiritual healers who may worsen the situation, especially if someone who is suffering from the condition is told that this is happening as a “payment” or “retribution” for something they did or did not do. Or they are told that they succumbed to their mental health issues because they are “weak”. Often, victims are labelled as crazy, weak, over-sensitive, lacking in faith as well as over-dramatic. Some may just ignore these labels and go get the help that they need, but more often than not, they succumb to the pressure and end up suffering in silence as they struggle with the symptoms alone, without proper guidance, treatment, or the necessary medication.

It is important to abolish stigmas against mental health among Malaysians. Mental healthcare professionals, the government, and society at large need to work together to eliminate the barriers against proper mental healthcare. More discussions and open talks should be encouraged, and awareness of mental health needs to be increased. The taboos and conventions against mental health need to be abolished. It should be seen as an illness that has proper treatments and medications. Otherwise, we may not hear the end of stories like the unfortunate baby Wan Mohamad Afiq.

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