Suicide: The Importance of Education & Policy


A myth that seems to be floating around in the wake of all these suicide incidents and attempts is that talking about suicide encourages it more. The truth is contrary: open communication about suicide allows people to express themselves, and when others are willing to listen, it can actually prevent suicide. With that said, ARE these conversations happening in Malaysia right now? What is the government and our universities doing to make sure that these issues are getting the attention they deserve?

closeup photo of pink petaled flowers

Malaysia only has ONE clinical psychologist for every 200,000 members of the population

woman in beige, gray, and red sweater holding silver tablet computer
Taken from https://unsplash.com/photos/BlGmdY18CFQ

Let’s start off with some statistics, courtesy of Befrienders KL (unless otherwise stated): – Approximately one suicide happens every 40 seconds worldwide – With our population of 30 million people, there are only 140 clinical psychologists. That’s one clinical psychologist for every 200,000 people (despite the fact that experts have estimated that 40% of Malaysians will suffer from mental health issues during their lifetime, and these could also be private clinics which are expensive). – Even among students, the Health Ministry revealed that the percentage of them suffering from mental health issues DOUBLED from 10% in 2011 to 20% in 2016!   So with awareness and availability of professional support in Malaysia currently at these levels, we looked at what the government and our unis are doing to help. That’s when it was found that mental health isn’t really a top priority in ministry budgets :/   Due to the lack of professionals in Malaysia, a lot of university programs are student-driven. These are usually run as class/club projects, and although it is great to have students champion mental health among their peers, these efforts are usually short-termed because they are not considered a major part of the school’s strategic planning or budget.   Although there was an overall increase in the Health budget, that growth was not repeated in areas of mental health. According to the World Health Organisation in 2011, 0.39% of Malaysia’s total health budget was allocated to mental health expenditures. But in 2016, the ASEAN report of Mental Health Systems stated that it accounted for 0.29- 0.38%, meaning budget allocation for mental health in Malaysia either dropped or stayed the same. Browsing through the Malaysia Education Blueprint (2015-2025), we discovered again 0 mentions of mental health, counselling, psychology or well-being. There WAS a lot of emphasis on ICT and providing computers though, which is cool I guess.

woman biting pencil while sitting on chair in front of computer during daytime
Taken from https://unsplash.com/photos/-2vD8lIhdn

  We spoke to Dzameer Dzulkifli, managing director and co-founder of Teach for Malaysia to hear his views on what schools and universities can do to promote mental health awareness. He pointed out that schools need to cultivate a culture where people are encouraged to be vulnerable – which is great not only for learning, but also to create an open space to talk and express themselves.   We also got to speak with the Provost of Heriot-Watt University Malaysia, Prof. Mushtak Al-Atabi, who goes all out for happiness. Sometimes he even brings students cookies during exam periods!   Prof. Mushtak suggested that while universities tend to prepare us for employment, they often neglect to emphasize emotional intelligence, leading to students feeling lonely and hopeless. As important as it is to produce intelligent students, universities should also provide environments that produce happy graduates. But how can they do this?   According to him, universities should first ensure that their staff are driven and trained in areas of mental health so they are best equipped to help students through tough times (or know when to pass the case to professionals if needed). He also mentioned the idea of having students come up with vision statements to cultivate their own purpose and meaning.

  “… where is the course that prepares you for being jobless? Or the course that tells you ‘when you break up with your girlfriend, don’t hang yourself’… what if we made happiness a compulsory subject for university students?”

– Prof Mushtak  

While mental health awareness is not part of our curriculum yet, there have been collaborative efforts by universities such as forums as well as programs that students and staff can register for.   But of course, not everything needs to be done by the government or universities. In fact, there are plenty of things we can do as members of the public as well!  

ANYONE can become an ambassador for mental health!

We spoke to Dr. Chua Sook Ning of Relate Malaysia, a mental health organization based in KL.

“Why do we teach kids to brush their teeth? Because it’ s basic hygiene. But we were not taught to deal with our emotions, physical exercise is important, but what about our feelings?”

– Dr. Chua

There is a huge stigma and lack of understanding from society and the management of universities, where those suffering from mental illnesses are seen as “others”. So how do we make long-term plans for our universities and communities? By speaking up! By executing these projects/programs! By demanding mental-health related services! And last but not least, by caring for yourself and your peers!

As a society, we can play a role to reduce the stigma by creating an open and comfortable space for people to share their concerns. Being an ambassador can involve anything from listening and empathizing with others to speaking up publicly about these issues. Another way to step up is by encouraging those you know who are suffering to seek help. If you’re interested to find out more about how you can be a friend to a person in need, you can contact Befrienders to learn about their outreach programs and workshops, OR you can follow Minda – a youth mental health initiative and be up to date to their initiatives/related events. Likewise, Relate offers affordable therapy sessions which can be conducted online too!

We’re all in this together!

Although Malaysia certainly needs to fix the current lack of professionals and emphasis on mental health in our federal policies, we can each play our part and shift our priorities by beginning to care for the emotional intelligence and well-being of our families and friends around us.   How can YOU play a role in mental health awareness and suicide prevention: 1. Be an ambassador in your little ways 2. If you have friend(s) who are suffering, be patient and encourage them to seek professional help   And of course, if you are suffering from any mental health illnesses, please reach out! Call the Befrienders 24-hour hotline at 03-7956 8144/5 or visit them at their newly revamped website to learn more.  

This article is a summarised version. Original article can be found here.

Edited by: JY Tan