The Stigma Towards Mental Illnesses in Malaysia

Assalamualaikum wbt.

This was written for a university assignment. Thought I’d post it here.

Other than physical and visible illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension, there is a group of people who suffer from illnesses that are not so obvious to the naked eye. Examples of mental illnesses are bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia, anxiety and multiple identity disorder. Unfortunately, in Malaysia, there is a strong stigma against mental disorders – people associate them with craziness and Tanjung Rambutan hospital. This unfortunate taboo is preventing many of these Malaysians from seeking the help and treatment they may need.

There has been a slight improvement in terms of awareness and education of mental ilnnesesses in Malaysia, but mostly we are still weak at identifying symptoms and knowing how to help. Trained psychologist Dr. Chua Sook Ning stated, “I got people who found out about their peers’ mental illness. People say ‘you are possessed by jinns, you are faking it, you are lazy, you are not reading the Quran enough, you are trying to avoid work’”.

According to the Health Ministry’s 2015 National Health Morbidity Survey (NHMS), up to 4.2 million Malaysians over 16 years old – around 30 percent of the segment – experience some form of mental illness. In 2006, it was just 11.2 per cent. This is extremely alarming as there is not enough awareness on mental illnesses. Nathaniel Branden once said, “The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is action.”

According to the Health Ministry’s Plan of Action 2016-2020 report, only 10 per cent of mental illness patients find employment after undergoing the government’s Individual Placement & Support – Supported Employment (IPS-SE). Dr. Chua said this was due to the government not addressing the issue directly and not providing adequate solutions. There are various emergency medical care options for childbirth, heart attacks, but not many for psychotic breakdowns.

In 2016, Arlina Banana, a social media influencer suffering from bipolar disorder, threatened to commit suicide publicly on her Twitter account because she could not stand the amount of hate she got. While some netizens did offer her emotional support, many others decided to tweet her insulting things such as “Guess you will end up in hell for killing yourself!” and “Does this idiot have no religion?”. Clearly, Malaysians have a lack of sympathy for those who are suicidal.

People cannot just ‘snap out’ of a heart attack, so why are those suffering from psychological disorders told to ‘toughen up’? Like a physiological illness, a mental disorder requires treatment and sometimes medication. Someone suffering from a mental illness should not be treated with disgust but should be showered with love and acceptance to improve their health.

Many mentally ill people in Malaysia are not aware of OKU cards for mental illnesses. In Malaysia, there are a few criteria that makes you qualified to apply for an OKU card for your mental illness. Firstly, Clients must have undergone at least two years of psychiatric treatment, and secondly, psychiatrists will determine the level of social functioning, cognitive and behavioral control significantly affecting the patient,before s/he be considered for the purpose of OKU. Some benefits of the card are financial assistance, education facilities, income tax exemption, and discounts on public transport.


The film ‘Redha’ was shown in Malaysian cinemas in 2016 to spread awareness and acceptance about autism. Not a mental illness, but a neurodevelopmental disorder, this was still a huge step for the Malaysian film industry. The film received good feedback from critics and viewers. Also in 2016, Hanna Alkaf published a book titled Gila: A Journey Through Moods and Madness, a compilation of personal stories from those suffering from mental illnesses in Malaysia. There are also mental health awareness campaigns such as #ImNotAshamed and movements such as Minda. The Befrienders 24-hour hotline also exists for anyone who needs a listening ear.

Anyone suffering from mental health issues should not suffer in silence or feel ashamed to admit that they have a mental illness. They should seek professional help. After all, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943), it was stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs and that some needs take precedence over others. Our most basic need is for physical survival, and this will be the first thing that motivates our behaviour. Once that level is fulfilled the next level up is what motivates us. ‘Safety’ is at the second level of the pyramid, which includes health. If mentally ill people cannot even reach the second stage, they will struggle to achieve love, esteem, or self-actualization.


Maslow, A.H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-96.

Palansamay, Y. (2017). #ImNotAshamed: Malaysian psychologist out to beat mental illness stigma. Link:

Navaratnam, S. (2016). Review: Gila: A Journey Through Moods and Madness. Link:

Minda. (2017). A Twitter thread on OKU cards for mentally ill Malaysians. Link: