By YAM Tengku Puteri Raja Tengku Puteri Iman Afzan Al-Sultan Abdullah and Puteri Nor Ariane Yasmin

The MCO has brought lessons and silver linings for the mental health community and beyond. We can start preparing for the “new normal” now, by reflecting on what we would like our future to be.

Malaysia is now in the third phase of the Movement Control Order (MCO) after a second extension from 14 to 28 April. If the first phase of the MCO can be considered relatively “easy” and the second phase “moderate”, perhaps we should expect the third phase to be somewhat “difficult”. As the range of difficulty progresses, so too will the range of emotions and challenges that we experience.

The information that we receive on WhatsApp, the posts and comments that we read on social media, and the news that we watch suggest that mental health issues could (steadily) rise with every extension of the MCO. Furthermore, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has recently stated that we must come to terms with a “new normal” once the MCO is eventually lifted. We offer some thoughts on how to adjust to this “new normal”.

First, we should differentiate those who contracted COVID-19 from the virus itself.

This virus knows no boundaries and does not discriminate by race, religion, gender or social class. Yet, there have been reports of Asians being subjected to racism and xenophobia in the West. In Malaysia, the stigma is mostly upon those who attended the tabligh gathering in February, as not all have been identified and tested.

Those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and recovered have also been ridiculed and rejected, and may even encounter social avoidance once the MCO ends. There have been reports of patients’ identities exposed, which in turn have led to them experiencing cyberbullying as well as threats.

The more we stigmatise the virus and ostracise patients, the more those who do have symptoms or have been in close contact will be less likely to come forward. This is a challenge that the mental health community is all too familiar with. No one will be left behind and #kitajagakita should resonate with us all as we prepare for what lies ahead in the “new normal”. Further stigmatisation will only leave us polarised when we need to be united on our road to recovery.

Second, we must be mindful that home is not a safe space for everyone.

During the MCO, we are being instructed to stay home to save lives and “flatten the curve”. This period of prolonged social isolation will challenge us as we adapt to drastic changes to our routines. While some of us are privileged to have a roof over our heads and food on the table, the same cannot be said for everyone. There has been a lot of effort from the Government, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the private sector and citizens to help those in need, such as the urban poor, homeless, refugees and asylum seekers alike.

We urge that the same attention should be given to those who suffer from mental health issues, those who live alone, or those who may live in an abusive environment whether it be mental or physical.

For instance, Malaysia has seen a spike in domestic violence cases following the MCO. Roughly a week after it was enforced, Talian Kasih saw a 57 percent increase in the number of calls, though the nature of these calls was varied. Abuse is often used as a source of control in the midst of uncertainty, such as financial constraints, health issues or feelings of suffocation. If you suspect anyone is in danger or suffering from mental and/or physical abuse, please reach out to the many organisations that offer support and advice, such as the Ministry of Health (MoH) psychosocial hotline, Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) and Sisters in Islam (SIS).

Indeed, the MCO has reiterated the importance of meaningful engagement and staying connected with our loved ones and peers. After four weeks, we now appreciate the simple gesture of saying “Hello! How are you?” We understand that “social distancing” does not mean we stop staying in touch; we understand that we must be united in a crisis; and most importantly, we understand that we must hold ourselves and one another accountable in order to move forward better and stronger. And, despite its challenges, the MCO has silver linings for those in the mental health community and beyond.

There has been a lot of coverage on the importance of mental health throughout the MCO, from news and commentary pieces, social media postings and even webinars with political leaders. However unfortunate, the MCO has broken barriers and created more awareness on mental health.

“…’social distancing’ does not mean we stop staying in touch… we must hold ourselves and one another accountable in order to move forward better and stronger.”

The MCO has also been a platform for those in the mental health space to reach out to those who are unfamiliar with bouts of anger, feelings of helplessness, loss of control, anxiety and mental pressure – all of which are triggers to mental illness later on if left untreated.

These are all key lessons for us to take into the “new normal” once the MCO is lifted. In some ways, the pandemic has shown us that a win for the mental health community is a win for us all. We must ensure that awareness and conversations on mental health continue in the “new normal”.

COVID-19 is forcing the entire world to reset and rebuild for a better tomorrow. We should use the time we have left in the MCO to pause and reflect as a nation on what we would like our future to be.

YAM Tengku Puteri Raja Tengku Puteri Iman Afzan Al-Sultan Abdullah is Patron, Mental Illness Awareness and Support Association (MIASA) and Member, Malaysian Health Coalition (MHC).

This article first appeared in the New Straits Times on April 14, 2020

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