Children’s mental health matters

KUALA LUMPUR – South Korean drama series It’s Okay Not to Be Okay starring the darling pair of K-drama fans Kim Soo-Hyun and Seo Ye-Ji has been a trending topic on social media and was among the top most popular TV shows in numerous countries after it premiered on Netflix recently.

The good looks of the lead pair have nothing to do with the popularity of the 16-episode series. Instead, what grabs the viewers’ attention is its storyline that creatively explores each character’s dysfunctional childhood.


The story revolves around two orphaned brothers (the older sibling is autistic) and a famous children’s book author who are all traumatised by the cases of parental abuse and murder they had experienced during their childhood.

This K-drama’s plot brings to light an acute yet stigmatised topic, namely mental health issues in adults caused by childhood trauma that can be traced to, among others, a fragile and unsupportive family ecosystem, abuse, divorce and death of a parent.


Early childhood education practitioner Dr Putri Afzan Maria Zulkifli agreed that traumatic experiences children go through can have a long-term impact on them if no remedial action is taken.

“The mental health of children in Malaysia today, in my opinion, is very worrying, considering current lifestyles where people are paying less attention to their children’s emotional state, and also the excessive and uncontrolled exposure to smartphones and other gadgets,” she told Bernama, adding that such a way of life can potentially affect children’s mental health.

She also made references to the United Kingdom-based organisation Play Therapy UK’s Census of Population data which indicated that 982,253 Malaysian children required therapy in 2011. In 2015, the figure rose to 1.6 million.

Putri Afzan Maria said it is during a child’s growing years, especially in the first six years, that they are in great need of having a strong and positive bond with their parents.

“During this stage, it is their emotional intelligence that deserves attention and not their academic prowess or how fast they learn to read, write and count as this trend can, unknowingly, turn to be one of the causes (for mental health issues),” she explained.

Pointing out that the definition of mental health covers a broad spectrum, she said it does not only focus on psychiatric illness but also issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression/mood disorders and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“Just imagine today’s children as young as two years old have to face mental health issues. So, when must we start taking preventive action? Are we taking this matter seriously?” asked Putri Afzan Maria, who is the founder of KinderKaizen and Sri Aria School.

Constructive study

Concurring with Putri Afzan Maria, UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) Representative to Malaysia Dr Rashed Mustafa Sarwar said the issue of mental health is indeed alarming and a pressing matter for children and adolescents globally.

He said looking at the magnitude of the issue today, it is no longer deemed a “hidden pandemic” and hence “constructive efforts and measures should be taking place now”.

According to Rashed, UNICEF Malaysia has yet to have in-depth knowledge of the extent of mental health issues in Malaysia and as such, early this year the agency embarked on an evidence-based and scientific study on mental health and psychological well-being of children and adolescents in this country.

“We’re hoping to complete it, if possible, by next year,” he said, adding that the study – the first of its kind in Malaysia – is being conducted in partnership with the Malaysian government, private organisations, academia and research institutions as well as other Southeast Asian nations, including Vietnam, that recently carried out similar studies.

“Of course, we are also partnering with the World Health Organisation (WHO) office here. This is an emerging issue because countries need to know more about the informative, behavioural and communicative aspects of the issue,” he added.

According to the National Health & Morbidity Survey (NHMS) 2019, 2.3 percent of Malaysian adults have depression, while 7.9 percent of children aged between five and 15 were found to have mental health problems.

Child’s fundamental rights

Rashed said the world should start mobilising efforts in support of children’s mental health as it constitutes a combination of several fundamental rights of children.

“If you were to look at the causes of mental health issues, each of them is tied to a right, for instance, the right to play, right to proper education and right to be protected from abuse, violence and neglect,” he added.

Reflecting on the theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day (which fell on Oct 10) Greater Investment, Greater Access, Rashed said good childhood memories could certainly be a great “investment” for a better physical and mental health state of a child towards their journey to adulthood.

“Malaysians are lucky to live in a society where family values are really strong. To curb mental health problems, these family values must remain intact and children should be showered with more attention, love and care,” he added.

Impact of Covid-19

WHO Representative to Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore Dr Lo Ying-Ru, meanwhile, said the mental health issue is especially important at this time when people’s daily lives have changed and are considerably impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As more children are affected, she said, it has now become more important than ever to invest in mental health programmes, both at the national and international levels which already suffers from chronic underfunding.

Dr Lo said a recent survey conducted by WHO on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on other health services and in respect to critical mental health services found that 93 percent of countries worldwide had “disrupted and halted these (mental health) services … while the need actually has been increasing, and this is very severe”.

“There is a reason why WHO and UNICEF have come together to support countries around the world to strengthen mental health and tackle social-psychological support, as well as other basic health services,” she said.

Dr Lo also said that while Malaysia has been active in the area of mental health prevention and promotion programmes, there is still a lot more to be done.

Malaysia could focus more on communally-based activities as it would help to expand the mental health helplines, she said.

“Also, any effort to further centralise trained staff, who have a basic psychology degree, to train others would be a good step too… these are things Malaysia can do more widely in addition to the existing programmes they have.

“After all, there’s no health, without mental health,” she added.