Those born between the 1980s and the mid-1990s (Generation Y or the Millennials) are currently running societies around the world with ample resources right at their fingertips, paving the way for the first half of Generation Z (born in mid-1990s onwards). The latter generation is in the midst of coming out as “freshies” to a world that is vastly different from what it was less than 20 years ago.
The world we are living in now is prime and bespoke to Generation Y. The wars had been fought generations ago, and technology has flourished from its beginnings during the Digital Revolution, ushering in an era of social media platforms that seem to operate with minds of their own. The economy, on most days, is stable, while globalisation has put most parts of the world on par with one another.
Despite unrest in pockets of the world, this generation is allowed to thrive more than the way it aspires to. While our great-grandparents put their lives on hold to go off to wars, we merely have to take a day off work to show up at a gender equality or climate change march. In fact, some don’t even need to take leave, being “their own boss” for their entrepreneur business. Adults from generations before had a 50/50 chance of coming home from battle, while the worst that could happen to us is probably pulling a hamstring during an intense CrossFit session.
While the current generations may be “better off”, we seem to have a different kind of battle to fight for each day. Pop culture author Chuck Palahniuk wrote in the 1996 bestseller Fight Club: “We don’t have a great war in our generation, or a great depression, but we do, we have a great war of the spirit. We have a great revolution against the culture. The great depression is our lives. We have a spiritual depression.”
According to the National Health and Morbidity Survey in 2015, some 29.9% of Malaysians (that’s a whopping 4.2 million) the age of 16 and above suffer from some form of mental illness, while a further 12.1% below the age of 16 are afflicted by it.
In Malaysia, mental disorder is estimated to be responsible for about 8.6% of total DALYs (Disability-Adjusted Life Year), a measurement of overall disease burden which contributes to the years lost due to illness of health, disability or early death. And this drives home the importance of mental health awareness.
“Growing up in the society around us, we hear things like: ‘you just need to suck it up’, ‘you just need to snap out of it’, ‘give it time, it will go away’… things like that. Sometimes, it does go away, but sometimes, they don’t,” says Azreen Pharmy, one of the visiting clinical psychologists at The Red Clinic.
Azreen weighed in on the “spiritual depression” the current generation is plagued with, “When you get a scrape on the knee, sometimes, it may just recover on its own spontaneously. However, some scrapes are a little bit deeper, a little bit worse, and if you don’t attend to it, it can get infected, which in turn creates a whole different set of problems. If left unattended for a long time, we may even fast forward to a point where you may even get gangrene. All this came from something as simple as a scrape on the knee.”
“With emotional injuries, it’s the same thing: some things do go away spontaneously. Like, feeling sad is a normal reaction to something negative that happened, but after a while, we manage to process the emotions on our own, we pick ourselves up and life goes on,” she says. “But some things are a little bit deeper, and those are the ones that we need to attend to.”
Why do you think it’s important to have a firm foundation on one’s “self”?
Shu Yi: We often hear people saying that they don’t know what to do with their lives, like, “I don’t know who I am” or “I need to find myself”. I believe that most times when people say that, what they’re looking for is essentially what do they value in life. Generally, having an understanding of our “self” is important. It involves understanding the foundation of the values we carry, and values guide our behaviour and decisions. A better understanding of the core “self” thus helps us prioritise things; it helps us to know what’s really important to us.
This then helps give meaning to life, and meaning gives a sense of purpose. We’d feel more grounded, and tend to be more resilient when we go through life’s challenges. On the other hand, if you don’t know what you value, everything will seem like an option to you. Everything may seem like a possibility, but you won’t truly know what it is that you want.
Azreen: That being said, self-discovery is actually an ongoing process, from the day we were born. It’s a process of being aware of ourselves (quite different from being self-conscious), generally just being aware of what we’re doing, what we’re thinking, and what we’re feeling, without necessarily judging it to be good or bad. The process of self-discovery differs at different stages of life as priorities change. Take for example the following: how we once discovered new things about the world when we were five – why does a certain sound or image scare you? – changes when we’re 15, when the awareness of the physical self in relation to others intensifies. Likewise, when we hit 25, 35 and so on.
We don’t really give emotional maturity the same consideration we’d give physical maturity, such as puberty, menopause, pregnancy and so on. We just assume that when a person has reached adulthood, we’re all set, when actually there’s a lot more to it that we don’t really see. There is the physical self, the mental/emotional self, the relational self, even the spiritual self (which does not necessarily have to do with religion per se, but the part of you that deals with purpose and meaning in life). All of these “selves” work as one so that we show up to the world as a holistic person.
Much like how fitness instructors have recently come into the lives of many, especially those in urban cities, would you say that having a therapist as well is a “must-have” as we move forward in this world?
Shu Yi: Like how having a fitness instructors is an option I wouldn’t say it’s a must to have a therapist, but there are definitely benefits to it. When you talk to your friends and your family, you tend to worry about how they feel. You don’t want them to get affected by your emotions or your struggles, because you care about how they feel. If you go to a therapist, you don’t need to worry about the therapist, because you’re not involved in each other’s lives. It leaves a lot of freedom in discussing whatever it is you want to talk about.
Azreen: When we go out into the world, we tend to wear many masks, depending on where we are and who we speak to. When you go to a therapist, it’s really a time when you can put all of that down. Everything you say there is confidential. We have clients that we see saying things out loud for the first time during the session, even to themselves, much less to anyone else outside of the room. Things that they can’t even go to their best friends for sometimes, and definitely things that they can’t go to their families, more so to their colleagues or their bosses, because there is something at stake.
Apart from the fact that we’re trained in what we do, it’s a special space for you to explore, a safe and comfortable space to just be you. A lot of times, we encourage our clients to say whatever they want to say, because whether you express yourself or not, you’re already thinking it, and you’re already feeling it. It’s not very healthy to just keep it all in; at some point, you will either implode or explode.
But shouldn’t we be working for a space outside of the four walls to be our true selves, instead of submitting to the safe space designated?
Azreen: Maybe in an ideal world (laughs), but often times, like what Shu Yi said, you want to take care of their feelings. Usually, it comes from a place where you don’t want to hurt the other person. We have a reciprocal relationship in that sense with them, and we may catch ourselves thinking about them: Are they okay with this? Can they handle this? We become calculative of what we say, and one way or another, we hold back on a lot of things and those things do not get processed.
Shu Yi: That being said though, when we work with families or couples, we encourage them to come in with their partners, or with their family and children, to teach them on facilitating that safe space at home. Ultimately, we also want to encourage this safe space beyond the four walls of our room, so that eventually, they won’t need us anymore. We know that our job is done when they don’t need us anymore.
Besides creating awareness about mental health and how it can be helped, what else should we look out for when we notice friends or family members struggling with mental health?
Azreen: It’s important for people to suspend judgment on others, to pause and think what happened to that person that made him that way. Everybody has their own history, what they have been through. Everyone’s experience of an event is completely different, and we won’t know how each person is going to react. To you, I may be overreacting to something, but to me, I may have been genuinely triggered. Instead of asking “Why?”, perhaps ask “What happened?” It’s much helpful to create this kind of empathy, not only for us, but also for the other person. His feelings aren’t dismissed, and he doesn’t feel alone. It also signals to him that there is someone else who cares to understand what he’s going through, and is not quick to judge based on his reaction or how he responds to a situation.
In speaking about the younger generation, it’s quite impossible to talk about them without touching on the digital era of social media. What are your thoughts on social media influences when it comes to mental health?
Azreen: It’s a double-edged sword. While there are a lot of negativity surrounding social media, there are also a lot of good. As a consumer of these contents, it’s important to know what is useful for you and what is not. It relates back to how important self-awareness is; that itself is already a very important filter when it comes to what content is useful and beneficial to us, and how to say no to the things that have nothing to do with us, or is harmful to us.
Shu Yi: I suppose, it’s harder for the younger generation, especially adolescents who are still figuring out who they are. That’s the time when they’re more susceptible to peers or social media influences. What could be helpful is to use their curiosity and learn that it is okay to question things. You don’t just take in what people tell you to, and just because something is popular doesn’t mean you must follow it. Instead, be open to various opinions and perspectives, and know that at the end of the day, you are the only one who decides what you take in.
With social media comes a generation that aspires to become social media influencers. What is your advice for them, especially when it comes to creating content that may potentially be misconstrued?
Azreen: It all boils down to responsibility and accountability. When you’re in a position where you can influence a lot of people, it’s important to know how your message is going to be received by people. You only truly have control over what you share but you may not have control over who reads it, and how they will react to it. The way you write something might seem sensible to you, but it might not be for others. One way to share responsibly is to include a trigger warning or disclaimer that whatever they write here are just their own personal experience, and they are not to be copied blindly. They serve as examples for the readers, to increase knowledge and awareness.
Shu Yi: It’s also important for people who are in the business to not forget that they too are only human, despite the many followers and likes they get. If things come to a point where it gets a little bit too much – when you find yourself editing a photo or figuring out what to write for a long time, and worrying too much about it when it’s published – then maybe it’s time to take a step back and consider how it’s affecting your “self” personally. It’s important to remind yourself of the person that you’d like to be.
The Red Clinic
+6 010 873 0175
23-P1, Block B, Jaya One, 72A
Jalan Universiti, Petaling Jaya
This article is part of the ‘Matters of the Mind’ sub-feature first published in the August Man Malaysia October 2019 print issue