True Grit. A series of conversations with people on Mental Health and Resilience.
Episode 6: Dato’ Dr Andrew Mohanraj. Consultant Psychiatrist and President of the Malaysian Mental Health Association
Brought to you by Etiqa
For this last episode in our True Grit series, our host Azran Osman-Rani, founder and CEO of Naluri, spoke with mental health specialist Dato’ Dr Andrew Mohanraj to get the view of a specialist on the mental health situation in Malaysia.
Dr Andrew is a busy and accomplished man. Not only is he a consultant psychiatrist, runs a clinic and is an adjunct professor at Taylor’s University, but he is also actively involved in various organisations such as the World Federation for Mental Health, as a board member, and the Malaysian Mental Health Association, where he is the President. During his career he has also travel extensively in the region to conflict and disaster areas, such as Aceh after the tsunami, to help the victims and communities. While the Covid pandemic might have slowed his travelling down, he replaces his overseas activities with video calls. Luckily for us, he found the time for a traditional face-to-face interview with Azran.
Mental health issues during the pandemic
One of the first questions Azran asked Dr Andrew, was what he has seen during the pandemic. His answer, perhaps not surprisingly, was as clear as it can be: “there has been an increase in cases of anxiety and depression. From the Malaysian Mental health association’s helpline, it is clear that there are many people who have developed psychological distress as a direct consequence of the pandemic. Then there are people who experience stress due to job insecurity, working from home and because of it, relationship issues. And finally, not to forget the people who already suffered from mental illnesses before the pandemic and whose isolation has made things worse.”
Early signs of mental health issues
In our interviews with two Etiqa CEOs we discovered the sheer size of the mental health issue. Some of us know of people suffering, but sometimes we notice it too late. Either in ourselves, with family members or our close friends. So what are some of the symptoms to look out for?
Dr Andrew shares, “some of the initial features would be isolating oneself, not having the energy, interest or motivation to do things. There could be some self-neglect in terms of their appearance and not paying attention to hygiene. And some of the features that would cause alarm in the very beginning would be in terms of performance. In addition to this, some people might also tend to cope with their early distress by self-medicating and that could involve using increased use of alcohol, using illicit substances, drinking copious cups of coffee, and or smoking excessively.”
The importance of acceptance
As with everything, acceptance is the the first step to change. Dr Andrew explains, “For us to understand or to accept that we might have some issue is one of the most difficult things to do because almost immediately the reaction would be to deny and say that there’s nothing wrong with me, I’m just undergoing a difficult patch. We don’t want to accept the fact that we might have a psychological situation. So I think if we do find ourselves having some form of distress the immediate thing to do is to read about it or talk to a friend or somebody we trust and ask them do you think that you feel that I’ve changed in any way? that might help us come to a decision.”
It is often easier to accept a situation if we know that we are not the only ones. According to Dr Andrew “it is good to know that it’s pretty much common for people to undergo these psychological decompensations every now and then and it is possible for us to pick up from that. It’s OK to struggle with that and we can overcome this with the right intervention and support by family and friends.”
Mental health on the work floor
Dealing with mental health issues on the work floor brings with it additional issues. Not only needs there to be trust on a personal level, but also on an employment level.
Dr Andrew proposed that supervisors “build trust, ensure that whatever is discussed is confidential and it is not going to affect the person’s ability to continue to remain in the company or the organization. And to guarantee that there will be some sort of support”
This is easier said than done, because “generally the work environment, the corporate culture is not very supportive of this and even if they are supportive, they often lack inbuilt mechanisms; the legal framework or the company policies to ensure that people with psychological problems are not penalised in some way.”
“But usually in an environment as the work culture, I think a colleague, a peer of that particular person might be in a better position to reach out. The supervisor can only sometimes say out things which are consistent with the company policy even in terms of the support that is given. Unless if the policy itself is something that encourages people to talk about their mental health issues and normalises the conversation in mental health.”
How to maintain positive mental health
Ending on a positive note, Azran asked Dr Andrew how people can maintain a positive health and prevent mental illness.
“I think first and foremost is to understand that we all have our limitations in life and to accept these limitations. Of course, we try to improve and do things better all the time but there are some things that we can do, and some that we cannot do. It is also important to celebrate the things that we can do and can do well. I think to understand that, would really make us feel a little bit more geared towards having good mental health. We cannot think of ourselves as Superman or Superwoman, we have our limitations, and we have our strengths as well. “
“And in addition to that, much has been said about maintaining physical health because despite all this positive outlook that we may have in life, if we neglected our physical health, like not doing enough exercises, not eating nutritional food, and not planning out our time well, then I think that is going to have a bearing on our mental health as well.
“The World Health Organisation has some catch phrases that we are encouraged to say during talk shows like this and one thing that we go on saying is the fact that physical health and mental health are two sides of the same coin. So you know when one is affected the other also will be eventually affected so that’s something that if we kept in mind I think it will lead to us maintaining well-being.”
This series on Mental Health is brought to you by Etiqa. If you want to know more about insurance and takaful products that Etiqa has to offer, including those that cover mental illness, please click here.