In this prolonged movement control order in the country, many people are very worried about the increase of mental health problems in the community. We have more reports of suicides in the media than usual. There are pleas from communities and organisations for better access to mental health services and for individuals who are having a hard time to seek help.
But we have big problems: lack of access to mental health services, lack of mental health professionals, and what I feel to be the biggest barrier is the stigma of mental health problems and anything related to it such as acknowledging it, and seeking help. The word ‘mental’ itself separates mental health from the concept of health and well-being.
‘Mental’ seems to be a very mysterious term that clouds people’s ideas of wellness. So, when it comes to addressing mental health problems, either through training, therapy or rehabilitation – they are shunned with prejudice and therefore remain mysterious, and avoided like the COVID-19 virus itself.
No need to be helpless
There is nothing mysterious about addressing mental health problems. Many factors contribute to mental health problems. Therefore, there are many things you can DO to address them. There’s no need to be helpless. These factors are biological, psychological, social and spiritual. How we are physically, the way we think, the way we behave, the way we socialise, and the way we practice spirituality, all affect our well-being. Nothing mysterious there.
You don’t need to be a mental health profession to DO something about stress, anxieties and other mental health problems. Anyone can do it, because you are all already doing them. These are called healthy habits that keep you well, or at least well enough. You just need to keep doing them, and get help to continue doing them. You already know how to do them. Just that when you are under prolonged pressure, while also feeling helpless and hopeless, many of these habits can turn unhealthy, and therefore contribute to further distress.
So, what are these healthy habits? What are the things you do that brings wellness? What keeps you healthy? Many people can answer – balanced diet, regular physical activities, sleep, rest, relaxation, engaging in entertaining and pleasurable activities, socialising, and to many people – religious or spiritual activities.
“Yes, ok, but these are things that everyone can do – but what about people with mental problems?” I hear many people ask. Here’s the thing – these health habits are what we call “behavioural activation”, a part of mental health and psychosocial support. These are exactly what mental health professionals facilitate as part of therapy. These are well-researched methods that have plenty of evidential support from the scientific literature. Nothing fancy, sophisticated or mysterious.
Much of recovery happens outside of clinical setting
Healthy habits are common. They can be supported by anyone in social environments. This means you, the community, can contribute to the recovery of anyone with any severe mental health problem. Moreover, much of the recovery happens outside of the clinical setting. The community is where recovery and the maintenance of well-being occur.
Let’s all reinforce healthy habits in our loved ones, friends, colleagues, neighbours, and whoever else we socialise with. Also, you don’t need to have a mental health problem to engage in behavioural activation. Regularly engaging in healthy habits protects us against illness. Keep practising!
“What about thoughts of burdensomeness, helplessness and hopelessness? Surely physical health behaviours alone can’t help?” Not so. We have seen from plenty of scientific and clinical evidence that being able to perform healthy habits, and having some form of structured routine promote the sense of self-efficacy in people. This increases the sense of relevance and belonging – all which form part of well-being. They are protective factors against depression and anxiety.
How? When we have good self-efficacy and sense of belonging, we have a sense of control and security, both which are counterintuitive to feelings of being burdensome, helpless and hopeless.
So, what can we do for others, and for ourselves? Learn to identify and solve problems. Where we have difficulties, learn to ask for help. There is no shame in reaching out. Also, research shows that seeking help is significantly associated with recovery.
So, identify sources of help. Engage in healthy habits – whatever the help brings the sense of well-being. Keep practising. Teach others. The main idea is to be empowered to DO something. Not remain helpless and hopeless. Hope is there and help is available. Neither is mysterious.
We can do this.
Professor Alvin Ng Lai Oon is trained as a clinical psychologist but is now a full-time academic at Sunway University, where he is Associate Dean (Engagement and Internationalisation) at the School of Medical and Life Sciences.