Many mental health disorders that manifest early in life tend to be chronic, and often, they are associated with poverty and marginalisation. If left untreated, these can lead to a series of impairments affecting various life domains, including academic underachievement, family problems, unemployment and mental health issues in adulthood.
The adolescent population in Malaysia stands at 5.5 million as of 2018; two in five adolescents suffer from anxiety and at least one in five battles depression, reports the National Health and Morbidity Survey 2017; while 11.2% have suicidal ideation and 10.1% previously attempted suicide.1 Form One students, especially, display the highest suicidal tendencies.
But despite the startling evidence, mental disorders are still highly stigmatised, or worse yet, swept under the rug. A Harvard report in 2015 revealed that Malaysia spent only 1.3% of its government health budget on mental health compared to an international average of 2.8%.2
Unless effective preventative measures are taken to tackle them head on, it is predicted that by 2020, mental illnesses would become the second biggest health problem to afflict Malaysians, after heart disease.3
One recently introduced measure is the Super Skills for Life (SSL) programme to help youths between the ages of six and 18 cope with emotional difficulties. The culmination of over 30 years of research, SSL is the brainchild of Cecilia A. Essau, a professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Roehampton in the UK, and Thomas H. Ollendick, a university distinguished professor in clinical psychology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, the US.
The resilience-building programme comprises eight sessions and covers topics such as linking thoughts, feelings and behaviour, and conflict management for children; as well as techniques to improve health through healthy eating, physical exercise and sleep hygiene for adolescents.
An estimated 566 educators took part in the workshop conducted by Prof. Cecilia A.Essau at the Teachers' Training Institute.
Prof. Cecilia A. Essau.
The SSL programme can be conducted both in a group or individually.
Two in five adolescents suffer from anxiety and at least one in five battles depression; while 11.2% have suicidal ideation and 10.1% previously attempted suicide. Form One students, especially, display the highest suicidal tendencies.
“SSL is an innovative and interactive evidence-based programme to equip children and adolescents with cognitive, emotional and social skills to enhance self-confidence, build emotional resilience and social competence, and cope with stressful situations and life changes, especially when transitioning from primary to secondary school. These skills are taught through a variety of formats, including small group and individual exercises, role plays, activities and games; and can be delivered both in a group or individually,” says Essau.
“Schools are an excellent setting and an ideal venue for providing mental health prevention and services as they are where children and adolescents spend a majority of their day at. The school setting also enables students to practice skills learned from the programme in a naturalistic context within a wide range of interpersonal situations, e.g. dealing with peers and teachers.
“It also acts in reducing stigmatic barriers commonly faced by individuals when seeking mental health treatments in the community, for example, at psychiatric clinics.”
Penang is the first Malaysian state to become a platform for the implementation of SSL. Funded by the Penang Education Council and supported by Deputy Chief Minister II Prof. P. Ramasamy, an estimated 566 educators, ranging from counsellors to disciplinary and final-year trainee teachers, took part in a two-day SSL workshop conducted by Essau herself at the Teachers’ Training Institute (IPG) last February. “This workshop complements the work of many schools that provide counselling services by increasing what educators are able to offer the youths they work with,” she says.
It is hoped that IPG will incorporate the SSL programme into the teaching syllabus for trainee teachers to be better equipped with the relevant know-how – including an increased range of solutions to a variety of problems faced by students – upon entering the profession.
Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow's wife Tan Lean Kee (second from right) attended the two-day workshop as a participant.
The initiative is in line with Goal 4: Quality Education of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to “substantially increase the supply of qualified teachers, including through international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries, especially least developed countries and small island developing states.”4
Also present at the workshop was Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow’s wife Tan Lean Kee, who attended as a participant. “This is an important initiative and is an example of the Penang state government’s commitment to promote the well-being of young people. Our future, our prosperity depends on today’s youths.
“There is a high level of internet addiction and suicidal plans and attempts, as well as bullying, obesity anxieties and illegal drug use among adolescents today.
While we cannot change the circumstances which have led many young people to develop mental health problems, we can teach them the skills to be a resilient and responsible individual. We can teach them how to cope with stressful situations which in previous times would have caused them anxiety and been challenging.
“However, our work does not end here. We all need to continue working together, spreading and sharing the skills we learned during the workshop as we continue to provide the best education for our students, and to prepare them for the best adult life.”
1https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2018/10/420119/dr-wan-azizah-time-review-malaysias-mental-health-policy. 2https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/letters/2018/11/08/set-budget-for-mentalhealth/. 3Ibid. 4https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/education/.