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The Economic Impact Of Rising Mental Health Cases In Malaysia

The prevalence of mental health issues in Malaysia has tripled from 10.7 in 1996 to 29.2 in 2016. These were the pre-Covid-19 estimates. In a 2018 report. Malaysia has a labour force of about 15.23 million workers earning a mean daily wage of about RM134. Mean number of days in absenteeism per worker, per year is around 8 and mean number of days in presenteenism per worker, per year is around 62. Total cost of absenteeism due to mental health condition is around RM3.28 billion and total cost of presenteeism due to mental health conditions are around RM9.84 billion. Total cost of staff turnover due to mental health condition is estimated to be around RM1.34 billion. Remember these are the pre-pandemic numbers. And at this time the mental health cost is already standing at RM RM14.46 billion!

In a press statement, Dr S. Subramaniam on the 28th of September 2016 reported that 1 in 3 Malaysians have mental health issues, with the highest prevalence among those aged 16-19 years as well as those from lower income families.

The mental health issues in Malaysia may be one of the major factors for the rising unemployment and the rise in the number of foreign workers in Malaysia. A 2018 survey reported that there are more than 1 million Bangladeshi workers in Malaysia. In the manufacturing sector, the ratio of locals to foreign workers is between 1:3, 1:1 and 2:1, depending on whether it is an export-oriented industry, non-export-oriented industry or the electronics and electrical products industry. At this rate, should the foreign workers go on strike, the entire Malaysian economy would collapse. So why do we need so many foreign workers and where are the Malaysian workers?

Can we say that there are so many foreign workers in Malaysia because of the country's rapid growth? No. Other ASEAN countries are growing at an even faster rate, but they are not as reliant on foreign workers as we are here in Malaysia. So where are the Malaysian workers? Most Malaysians are not interested in low-paying job preferring to stay at home and live off the other family members who are earning. If you are a HR manager and you are given the choice of picking a foreign worker or a domestic worker, most Malaysian companies will choose to hire a foreigner because experience tells you that they are more productive, more effective at their job, more reliable, less demanding and cheaper. There is the idea these days that Malaysian workers are failing to remain competitive in the open market.

Another reason why there is a shortage of workers is because most women who are married in Malaysia do not work or work part-time. Even so, many household cannot function without a maid. So it is not just the manufacturing industries that cannot survive without foreign workers, even the homes and families rely heavily on foreign workers.

So imagine this very real scenario now in Malaysia. According to the statistics issued by MOH, 1 in 3 Malaysians has a mental health issue and most are in their late teens. Then add-on the situation where majority of women chooses not to enter the workforce... is the mental health issue not prominent enough for us to take note? How can Malaysia or Malaysian thrive in this climate?

Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin has been saying since 2021 that the increase in suicide cases in Malaysia is worrying. In the NST article dated 10 October 2022, he was quoted as having said that there were 1,142 cases of suicide reported in 2021 compared to 631 cases in 2020. This is a jump of 81 per cent. In the same article, he also told reporters that during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) hotline received 212,319 calls in 2021, an almost five-fold increase at 44,061 calls in 2020.

Do we have the resource to curb this problem?

In the 2023 budget, the government has allocated RM4.9 billion to public health. Out of this the establishment of the National Centre of Excellence for Mental Health (NCEMH) will cost an estimated RM34 million. Why do we need such a centre? Why not find a lower cost and more ground swell approach to mental health care? I believe the money will be better spend in providing services rather than in the creation of another layer of bureaucracy. Do we need another centre? No. What we need is to maintain, enhance, expand and provide better mental health care directly and cheaply to the public. We need social services, facilities and incentives that encourages and make it easier for women with children to join the workforce. We need to stop spending money on worthless white elephants and start spending money on things that can improve domestic workers skills and employability. So that domestic productivity can increase. We need to encourage Malaysians who have left to seek a better life overseas because of the discrimination in this country to return to help re-build the country and to bring their foreign earnings back here to balance the outflow of money from having foreign workers here. If this does not happen soon, we can look forward to high inflation rates, low wages, high unemployability among Malaysians, increase in mental health cases, decrease in competitiveness and the collapse of our economy within the next decade.


* * * Please note. The personal views of the author is not the view of 360 Wellness Hub. 360 Wellness Hub is not responsible for the views expressed by the author.


About the Author


Dr. Lennie Soo

Founder and Clinical Director of 360 Wellness Hub.

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