How does the lockdown affect your mental health?

When holding on to hope starts to feel exhausting

The Malaysian government implemented the first lockdown or better known as Movement Control Order (MCO) in March 2020. Since then, various versions of MCOs have been implemented and needless to say, the lives of many Malaysians have been shaken due to salary cuts, businesses closing, debts increasing and the list goes on. 

As we see a continuous rise in daily Covid-19 cases, Malaysians are trying their very best to hang in there but many are finding it difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Hence, the hope in the lives of many are diminishing. 

From losing the freedom to move about by being confined to the walls of your home to the many other changes that has happened since the pandemic hit. How are you coping mentally?

Lecturer at University Malaya and Psychiatrist, Dr. Lim Poh Khuen, brings to light the reason behind the rise in suicide as well as depression cases lately as well as solutions to keeping the light of hope alive within you.

1. Why does the lockdown have such a great impact on the mental health of individuals?

When lockdown is being enforced as a measure to reduce the spread of Covid-19, more people are forced to make changes to their daily routines. This includes working from home, home-schooling of children, unemployment and social isolation from family and friends. This disruption in our daily routine can lead to impact on various areas, such as individual, interpersonal or family relationships, and the school or work area. 

There are a few reasons that can affect mental health well-being such as perceived threat of the virus, loneliness, childcare responsibilities, isolation, worrying about the future, confusion, and quarantine. 

Furthermore, stressful life events such as bereavement, or having a loved one being infected, financial worries may all contribute to mental health issues.  The psychological sequelae of the pandemic might persist for months and years to come.

2. Could you share about the rise in suicide cases as well as depression since the beginning of pandemic?

The Covid-19 pandemic is associated with anxiety, social isolation, uncertainty, chronic stress and fear of contagion, which can lead to substance use, depression, anxiety or other mental disorders. Research found that the prevalence of depression appeared to be seven times higher during the pandemic. Some of the mental disorders such as substance use disorder and depression are linked with suicidal behaviour. 

Vulnerable individuals include those with pre-existing psychiatric disorders, low-resilient people, individuals living in Covid-19 hotspot areas, and individuals who have a loved one who died of Covid-19. According to the statistics from a local newspaper quoted from Bukit Aman CID director, suicide cases has been on a rise. 

A total number of 609 suicide cases in 2019, 631 suicide cases in 2020, and 468 cases alone between January and May this year. Selangor recorded the highest number of suicide cases between January and May this year (117 cases). From 2019 until May this year, more female (1427) died from suicide, compared to male (281). 872 cases involved adolescents aged 15 to 18 years old, while 668 cases involved adults aged 19 to 40 years old.

3. On top of that, are there any statistics about more people seeking help to cope with mental illnesses during the pandemic?

The government’s psychosocial help line recorded 37709 calls between April and September 2020, indicating the emotional distress experienced by the people. 

Befrienders KL have also reported a surge in the number of phone calls received during MCO3.0. The center received an average of 107 phone calls per day, compared to about 70 phone calls during MCO 1.0. Talian Kasih, Women’s Aid Organisation, and Relate Malaysia all reported similar findings since the implementation of the first MCO. 

4. Based on your observation, what are some of the main reasons that cause individuals to go into a depression and have suicidal thoughts since the pandemic happen?

The disruption of daily activities and changes in routine are among the rapid changes brought by the pandemic. The lockdown causes separation from family and friends. Isolation and social distancing, alongside with uncertainty amplifies depression. Furthermore, exposure to social media and fake news can result in increased fear and anxiety, which may affect one’s mood. Unemployment, lower socio-economic status and stressful life events are all risk factor for depression, which can lead to suicidal thoughts.

5. The never ending MCOs/lockdowns are putting a greater strain on the mental health of individuals especially when there is no certainty; it is no doubt difficult to see the light at the end of a dark tunnel. Could you advice on ways to cope with this feeling to avoid depression?

Listen to advice and recommendations from reliable resources such as the national authorities. Avoid rumors or facts that are circulated on social media. It is also advisable to take breaks from social media and news as constant exposure can be overwhelming and upsetting. Next, have a routine. Especially for those working from home, a regular routine, which includes things that you enjoy, is important. 

During the lockdown, keep in regular contact with loved ones through phone or online channels for social support. Stay away from alcohol and drug use as it worsens the feeling of anxiety and depression. Stay physically active at home, and this can be doing three to four minutes of light intensity physical movement such as walking or stretching, or regular yoga at home. Eat a healthy and balance diet. Perform self-care activities such as journaling, meditating, gardening, anything which makes you feel good. It is normal to feel worried and distress during these times. If the situation is worsening, reach out for help via emotional support lines or nearest clinic. 

If you are facing financial difficulties, do look out for financial aid such as the RM150 billion aid package recently announced by the Prime Minister. You can also seek help from various NGOs and local council. 

6. For those who have identified a friend or family member in need of professional help but refuses to seek help, what can they do to encourage them to do so?

Listen to their problems and try to understand their difficulties. Validate their emotions and let them know that you are there to help and support them. Do not judge their words or actions. Provide them with the information such as emotional support help line or places where they can seek professional help. You may also offer to accompany them during their consultations. 

7. Lastly, could you share with us some effective ways and ideas on what Malaysians could do to provide positive mental health support as well as to create a more positive vibe in our community?

Learn and practice ways to reduce stress, anxiety, loneliness and fear. 

The Covid-19 pandemic may feel overwhelming at times. Try to get going and keep doing to fight pandemic fatigue. Follow the regular routine and get enough rest and sleep, coupled with healthy food and regular physical activity. Practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, performing meditation, mindfulness, grounding techniques can help us to be more aware of our emotions and relax our mind and body. Watch out for people around you, your neighbors, family and friends. 

If you notice that they are acting differently or expressed their difficulties, support them and assist them in getting professional help. For those who are interested in community engagement, volunteering helps to counteract the effects of stress and anxiety. Care Warriors Association is an NGO that aims to improve mental health awareness and suicide prevention. If you are interested in volunteering, you can reach out to us at persatuanwirakasih@gmail.com. We also have webinar “Jom Sembang” series aired every Thursday, second week of the month. Website: carewarriors.org.my