Emotional support just a phone call away

PETALING JAYA: The Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 caused the world to come to a standstill.

Two years on, the effects are still being felt as many suffer from depression and its after-effects.

A spate of suicides at the Penang Bridge shook Malaysians, as did the rise in cases of child abuse, wife battery, divorces and others – all prompted by emotional distress.

But where do people go for help? Malaysia is short of psychiatrists and clinical psychologists as reported in theSun.

In an interview on July 12, Mental Health Aid Organization co-founder Jernell Tan said the country had only 410 psychiatrists, with an average national psychiatrist to population ratio of 1.27 to 100,000, which is significantly lower than the World Health Organization recommended ratio of one psychiatrists per 10,000 population.

While there are NGOs that people can telephone or go to for counseling and mental health assistance, not all are as equipped as Befrienders, a not-for-profit organization that was established in 1970 by a group of pioneer Malaysians who were concerned about the emotional well-being of the community after the race riots of May 13, 1969.

Befrienders provides emotional support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to those who are lonely, in distress or despair and having suicidal thoughts.

Its services are free of charge and run with the assistance of professional psychiatrists and psychologists from University Malaya Medical Centre.

Befrienders Kuala Lumpur executive director Kenny Lim said it was modeled after Samaritans, a movement which started in London in 1953 by Dr Chad Varah. Since then, the movement has spread around the world under the umbrella body of Befrienders Worldwide.

“Today, Befrienders Worldwide is a dynamic and expanding global network of 349 emotional support centers in 32 countries spanning five continents.

These centers are staffed by more than 25,000 volunteers who provide vital support to an estimated seven million service users each year and provide an open space for those in distress to talk and be heard.

“We are multiracial, non-religious and available to everyone, regardless of race, religion, age, gender or sexual orientation,” Lim said, adding that it is a volunteer-based organization with trained staff who treat each conversation as strictly confidential.

“Those who come to us may keep their names private and use a pseudonym if it makes them more comfortable. Once a phone call is answered, a trained counselor will listen, ask questions to generally understand how the person feels, give him the time to share his dilemma and provide support on how to cope,” Lim said.

Additionally, to keep up with the times, Lim said Befrienders can also be contacted by email. However, face-to-face sessions are currently unavailable due to the pandemic.

“Many who email us come from the younger generation. However, at the moment, we aren’t able to spread our wings to other platforms due to the high number of emails and calls we get daily.

“Our focus is still very much on phone calls and emails, but having said that, we also use social media to spread awareness on the issues that plague those who suffer silently.”

Lim said there is an immediate and pressing need to educate the public on matters concerning mental health issues, especially if we are to get rid of the stigmas that surround the topic.

“But I can’t deny that over the last five years, there has been a lot of improvement surrounding mental health. Today, people are far more understanding when it comes to such issues.

“Still, I also cannot deny that it has been challenging in our fight to help as many people as we can. Sometimes, people cannot get through to our line. Besides the challenges, we see more people calling in for help.

“This just goes to show that more people are reaching out and aware that help is just a phone call away,” said Lim, adding that last year, Befrienders received a total of 44,408 calls or 122 calls a day.

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