14/10/2021
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Mental health first aiders can save lives

By Chan Wen Li

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on mental health.

In Malaysia, the Health Ministry’s (MOH) Psychosocial Support Line received a total of 223,990 calls between the start of the pandemic until 19 September 2021, with 80.8% of callers in need of emotional support and counseling.

The Royal Malaysian Police recorded 468 suicide cases in the first five months of 2021, an increase from 631 cases in the entire year of 2020, and 609 in 2019.

Given the increasing importance of supporting the mental health needs of people around us, and in line with this year’s World Mental Health Day theme, “Mental health care for all: let’s make it a reality”, having persons within our homes, networks, workplaces and communities who are equipped to look out for signs of mental health issues and to facilitate help-seeking would immensely improve the population’s access to mental health care and support.

As an academician at a higher education institution and in my personal capacity, I have found that mental health awareness and support involves more than just healthcare professionals.

There are many stakeholders within one’s community who play important roles in helping to lead a person in need safely to the right channels of support.

I have also come to realize that there is much to learn about supporting someone during a mental health crisis.

To better equip myself, I recently registered for a course that led to being awarded the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) certification by MHFA Malaysia.

The MHFA is a licensed and evidence-based training program from MHFA International, Australia. MHFA accreditation to individuals in Malaysia is issued by the Malaysian Mental Health Association.

The course imparts knowledge on how to help a person with a mental health problem or crisis until appropriate professional help is received.

Mental Health First Aiders are not mental health professionals and the MHFA does not enable a person to diagnose or treat mental health conditions.

It would greatly benefit Malaysia as a caring nation to work towards a vision of having a Mental Health First Aider in every workplace and educational institution.

Just as organizations commonly organize training for physical first aid certification, it is about time for mental health first aiders to be viewed equally important.

Equipping more people with the know-how to provide early intervention to prevent mental health problems from escalating facilitates early recovery and could potentially save lives.

My personal journey that led me to the MHFA certification is also motivated by my current research.

Together with mental health professionals and media experts, the University of Nottingham Malaysia and our collective of academicians intend to engage with suicide-prevention stakeholders in Malaysia on the best ways to encourage ethical and safe reporting of suicide-related news. This is with a view to avert harm from vulnerable persons who may be at risk of ‘copycat’ suicidal behavior upon reading news that is sensationalized, containing explicit details or oversimplifying the complex multifactorial causes of suicide.

Additionally, the engagement aspires to promote the generation of stories focused on positive coping and help-seeking.

The findings of this research will have implications beyond media ethics per se.

The rise of web-based platforms in recent years have increasingly blurred the boundaries between conventional and citizen journalism. As a result, citizens are often able to report ‘breaking news’ more quickly than traditional reporters.

In such an environment, knowledge of safe messaging for suicide prevention would be key not just to media professionals and regulators, but also to the man on the street.

Amid the concerning cases of mental health crisis over the past 18-months, I am also encouraged to see greater focus on awareness and conversations surrounding mental health in Malaysia.

My hope is to encourage ordinary Malaysians like you and me to see ourselves as part of the solution and take that step to be a Mental Health First Aider to each of our own little communities around us, be it our small circle of friends, colleagues or even neighbors.

(Chan Wen Li, a Certified Mental Health First Aider, is Assistant Professor of Business Law at University of Nottingham Malaysia.)

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