Thirty per cent of Malaysians who are 16 years old and above suffer from some kind of mental illness.

ADDRESSING the state of mental health among Malaysians is now becoming an urgent matter.

In the National Health Morbidity Survey (NHMS) by the Ministry of Health in 2015, it was reported one in three Malaysian adults are struggling with mental health issues. Thirty per cent of Malaysians who are 16 years old and above suffer from some kind of mental illness.

The ministry in recognising the pressing situation launched the National Mental Health Strategic Action Plan last year.

“Malaysia faces a severe skills shortage to handle the problem and with that, there is a good outlook for psychology graduates in terms of job prospects,” said INTI International College Subang, Center for American Education dean Eric Lee Chan Yu.

He said this is evidenced in that there is only one psychiatrist for every 100,00 mental patients. And that there are only 360 registered psychiatrists in Malaysia: 190 in government hospitals and 170 in private hospitals while only 13 are clinical psychiatrists. “So one can clearly see the severe shortage of mental health practitioners to handle the rising issues.”

Lee said the problem is many do not know where to go for help, apart from going to hospitals to see a psychiatrist. While psychiatrists may diagnose the problem and prescribe medication to treat the symptoms, he said they generally won’t be able to offer proper counselling and therapy to the patient.

“We first need to remove the stigma that seeing a counsellor or psychologist means that you are ‘crazy’ or have serious mental problems. It is unfortunate that many Asian societies in general sees the nature of seeking help from counsellors or psychologists in a negative light. Exposing society to the idea and benefits of seeking professional help in areas of mental and psychological health would help change their perception,” he said.

Lee, who holds a BA in Psychology and Religion (double degree) from the University of Iowa in the US, said with proper counseling both the patient and their family will be guided to know how to cope and learn to live with the mental health conditions facing them.

“With this, we can see the need for a larger workforce in Malaysia’s mental healthcare profession and the prospects are much greater for those who have a desire to help others. This is illustrated in the way the government has mandated that any education provider must provide one licensed counsellor for a certain amount of students at both secondary and tertiary level,” he said.

To be a licensed counsellor or psychologist, one would first have a bachelor’s degree in psychology to be followed by a Masters or PhD in a specialised area.

“They also need to choose their internship well as that will give them a good idea of their working life. While this is true of almost all internships, for psychology students, their internship will help show their the area of specialisation. Examples would be like working in an autism or counselling centre. They will find out very quickly if working with autistic children or listening to people’s problems is the right pathway for them,” he explained.

For licensed and registered counsellor Teow Ker Shin, working as a counsellor at a local college enabled her to actively take on the role of a change agent in assisting and facilitating the mental and emotional growth of students or young adults.

“They are transitioning from the teenage years to adulthood and it is at this stage that they need guidance the most. This includes helping and getting the person to be aware of what they would like to do in the future; assist them to discover more of themselves; identify what are the causes or triggers that lead to dysfunctions in their life — if there are any distortional thoughts, suppression and repression of emotions that hinder them from functioning; and getting consensus of the person to discuss the intervention plans and goals for the success of the counselling,” she shared.

Counsellors, Teow pointed out, do not pressure people into attending counselling sessions. This is because the progression of a person in need of counselling lies in the person’s conviction or belief that the sessions are useful.

At times, some cases were beyond the counselling profession; for instance, severe mental health issues that need a proper diagnosis and prescribed medication which can only be handled by a mental health professional i.e. a psychiatric consultant.

“Cases of students who may have learning disabilities also need the diagnosis of therapists and they require the relevant types of therapy to meet their needs. Counsellors need to assess how far they can help the individual and ensure they appropriately refer the individual to the right professionals for assistance which is beyond their area of expertise,” she said.

Working with students come as a great reward and motivation to Teow, especially when she sees the person she has helped become resilient and is able to courageously move forward in facing and conquering life’s challenges.

“It is an amazing journey to help students know and understand themselves better, identify their needs and make good decision to meet their needs. Beyond that, it is also rewarding to see how their personal development impacts their interactions with the people around them.”

“Apart from having the right skills, a good and professional counsellor must know and understand that we are the main instrument that leads to the success of counselling ­— this involves how a counsellor shows empathy, exhibits non-judging gestures, portrays a warm and friendly disposition as a way of building the therapeutic relationship with the client, in this case the students,” she said.

These elements are important for those seeking counselling as it is a matter of entrusting a person with the ability to provide guidance in making life decisions further to feeling like one is in a safe space in their journey of seeking help from a counsellor, Teow remarked.

Teow has nine years of counselling experience in the education sector. She is a certified trainer of DISC personality profile and a practitioner of Satir Therapy and Expressive Art Therapy.

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