Brunei’s psychiatry services is seeing an increasing number of young patients who say they are  over-worked and stressed. These conditions and other factors have now placed youth in their early 20s as the most vulnerable to mental health problems, a lead psychiatrist disclosed Wednesday.

Also at high risk of suffering mental illnesses are those who are unemployed, foreign workers and individuals with a history of substance abuse, said Dr Hilda Ho (pictured), head of Psychiatry Services at the Raja Isteri Pengiran Anak Saleha Hospital.

“We are getting an increasing number of referrals. The trend is we are seeing more and more young people… Although there is still stigma and fear surrounding mental health, what we find is that more people are willing to come [for help],” she noted, adding that her youngest patients are university students.

The Psychiatry Services facility in Kg Kiarong. Photo: Hadthiah Hazair

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression tops the list of causes of illness and disability globally. In Brunei, the Psychiatry Department has identified depression and anxiety as the top two most diagnosed mental health problems.

In November 2014, Brunei introduced the Mental Health Order, legislation to replace the outdated Lunacy Act. The order creates a framework to provide necessary change in the nation’s approach towards mental healthcare.

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The new laws aim to promote equality and non-discrimination, emphasising the shared responsibilities of stakeholders when it comes to addressing mental health.

“When people break their leg, we feel sorry for them. So why can’t we [empathise] with individuals with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety? ”

According to Dr Ho, most of those who come forward to seek mental health treatment are over-worked and under-appreciated, so it is important that employers give special attention to the work environment. Being aware of their responsibility to ensure a healthy work environment will help retain valuable human resources, she noted.

“There needs to be a culture of openness… Look out for your colleagues, look out for your friends and family and be able to identify the symptoms of depression. We are trying to build an awareness where it becomes normal to ask your colleagues and friends how they are feeling,” she said.

She stressed that employers should not discriminate against those who seek mental health treatment, noting that there is nothing wrong with individuals who feel “out of control”. The psychiatrist added that, just like any other illness, mental disorders can be diagnosed and treated effectively.

Some of the patients who are still studying end up dropping out from school… This is a big risk factor when an individual cannot become economically active.

“A handful of big corporations have approached us to give a talk on mental health at the work place. So some managers and employers are proactive in learning about ways they can deal with the issue.”

Dr Ho wants to encourage people to feel that it is alright to talk to their doctors when they feel that there’s something wrong with their mental health. Fostering a culture of openness, she reiterated, is as important as ensuring a healthy work environment.

The World Federation of Mental Health estimates that 50 per cent of people who suffer from depression do not receive any treatment and approximately 10 per cent of the employed population has taken time off work for depression.

Another group susceptible to mental health disorders are those who are unemployed as well as those unable to secure a permanent job. The financial burden and lack of a meaningful career are main contributors to mental health deterioration, Dr Ho said.

“We are more aware now that the way to [raise awareness] is not just by holding big forums. It’s social media. It’s the young people we have to target now.”

The health professional said that as Brunei is a nation of young people — her department receives referrals for patients as young as university students — they need to target their awareness campaign accordingly.

“Some of the patients who are still studying end up dropping out from school. So we have to ensure that they finish their studies as this is a big risk factor when an individual cannot become economically active,” Dr Ho noted.