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Unicef-MOH Study Reveals Gaps In Malaysia’s Child Mental Health Response

Marginalised, out-of-school, and migrant children and adolescents bear the brunt of gaps in mental health and psychosocial support systems, says Christopher Davids from Unicef.

Photo caption: Deputy Health Minister I Dr Noor Azmi Ghazali at the launch of the “Malaysia Country Report and Infographic 2022: Strengthening Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) Systems and Services for Children and Adolescents in the East Asia and Pacific Region”. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Health.

PUTRAJAYA, August 29 – A new report launched by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and the Ministry of Health Malaysia (MOH) today highlighted key gaps in Malaysia’s mental health and psychosocial support systems and services for children and adolescents.

The “Malaysia Country Report and Infographic 2022: Strengthening Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) Systems and Services for Children and Adolescents in the East Asia and Pacific Region” summarises consultations and interviews with 124 stakeholders from health, justice, social welfare, and education sectors, including government and non-governmental organisations, UN agencies and youth representatives.

The key gaps highlighted in the report include difficult or limited access to services for mental health problems, lack of empowerment in existing law and policies, deficiencies in communication and coordination between sectors, insufficient funding, lack of trained personnel in MHPSS for children and adolescents, as well as limited involvement of end users such as parents, caretakers and youths themselves, in the planning of mental health programmes and monitoring.

In his speech at the launch of the report in Putrajaya this afternoon, Christopher Davids, deputy representative for Unicef in Malaysia, said while the gaps in MHPSS have severe consequences on all children, “it is the marginalised, out-of-school and migrant children and adolescents who can be expected to receive the brunt of it.”

“We must make sure they are not left behind,” said Davids, who added, “we can achieve this by strengthening the participation of children, adolescents and families. Any policy, programme, or service offered must respond to their needs and address any barrier they face.”

Deputy Health Minister I Dr Noor Azmi Ghazali acknowledged that while an existing system is in place providing MHPSS for the general population in Malaysia, MHPSS for children and adolescents needs to be strengthened.

A joint statement by Unicef and MOH said that according to the 2019 National Health Mobility Survey (NHMS), about 424,000 children in Malaysia have mental health problems, but many do not come forward to seek assistance.

One in eight adolescents aged 10 to 19 years, and 1 in 20 children aged five to nine years are estimated to have a mental disorder, including developmental disorder.

Suicide was the second leading cause of death among adolescents aged 15 to 19 in Malaysia, said the statement.

Risk factors for poor mental health include exposure to violence, peer victimisation and bullying, loneliness, and social isolation.  

Dr Noor Azmi said the report identified a “priority package of actions” to offer better mental accessibility and responsiveness towards mental health conditions.

“In line with MOH’s effort to develop the National Centre of Excellence for Mental Health, it is our hope at MOH that experts on child and adolescent mental health from various ministries, agencies and NGOs will work towards the expansion of MHPSS for children and adolescents.”

In his speech, Davids pointed out that one of the report’s key recommendations is to establish a national multi-sectoral steering committee to coordinate mental health activities for children and adolescents.

“A multi-sectoral approach will allow for key stakeholders in health care, social welfare, child protection, and education to coordinate their effort and strengthen this much needed safety net for children and adolescents.

“The committee will come together for collaboration, data sharing, and referral mechanisms across different sectors. This committee in turn will advise the Minister of Health on mental health and psychosocial support services for children and adolescents in Malaysia.”

The MHPSS research is the first in the Pacific region that focuses on children and adolescents up to 18 years old in Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Papua New Guinea.

Before COVID-19, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 10 to 20 per cent of children and adolescents worldwide experienced poor mental health, with half of mental disorders beginning by age 14.1.

In East Asia and the Pacific, almost one in seven boys and one in nine girls aged 10 to 19 years have a mental disorder, with suicide the third leading cause of death for 15 to19-year-olds in this region.

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