I sat at the edge of the long benches that surrounded the small room, waiting patiently for the speaker to begin. A petite woman wearing a simple grey and blue outfit, the speaker arrived about 10 minutes before the advertised time, waiting patiently for the guest of honour who would arrive 30 minutes after.

I checked the time, hoping I would be make it for a work-related meeting that would take place in about two hours. Time-management isn’t easy being a part-time student while holding down a full-time job. If what she had to say wasn’t relevant to my research, where I sat allowed me to be on my way silently, without disturbing the rest of the audience.

The speaker was Dr Hilda Ho, and she spoke, at length about mental health, a subject that I have keen interest in ever since a teacher asked if I might be struggling with depression. Twenty minutes into her talk, I texted work that I will be late.

Dr Ho is the leading psychiatrist in Brunei Darussalam, having written a number of papers about the state of our mental health care system in the country and the current head of psychiatry at the RIPAS hospital. She contributed to the formation of our current mental healthcare act, which replaced an antiquated Lunacy Act, with a more modern approach that treats mental health care patients with the dignity afforded another human being.

The subject of her talk, which shared her experiences in the field, was quite riveting. She spoke for a little over an hour, going into detail about what the challenges young people now face when it comes to mental illness, on how trauma, abuse, childhood, social interactions, and social pressures would affect the mind.

“This talk will be quite ‘real’,” she said, and it was.

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She spoke unequivocally about the drug problem in Brunei, shockingly stating that she felt it was too easy for Bruneians to get their hands on things like syabu and cannabis. She noted that abuse, domestic and sexual, can be quite common here, a risk factor when it comes to mental health issues and suicide.

“Why do people commit suicide?”, she had asked the audience, all rapt with attention (except for that one guy diddling away on his mobile phone). “Heartbreak?”, a reply came out. Whether humourous or otherwise, I couldn’t tell, but Dr Ho simply nodded. “Yes, that is a risk factor,” she said.

As she talked, she gave details and did her best to educate. One thing stood out to me in her voice, perhaps it was an inflection or some other little tell that I might have been imagining — I think she was tired. Tired of giving talk after talk after talk, and still seeing her patients, people whom she spent time caring for, suffer under the weight of brutal stigma, outcast by a society that had been advertised to the world as warm-hearted, caring and compassionate.

What cemented this impression on me was a simple exchange with an audience member: “You mentioned that suicide was the second leading cause of death among youth globally (the first being accidents), is this also true in Brunei?”, asked the well-intentioned person.

“We do not know”, she said simply, citing the lack of research. “Whenever I brought it up, it was deemed too taboo”, she said plainly, in front of media, in front of government officials, in front of a public audience. Perhaps she knew media wouldn’t bring it up. Or perhaps she didn’t care anymore.

“Too taboo”, to investigate suicide in Brunei. I’m not sure how she felt when she saw the spike of suicide incidents being reported in the country earlier this year, the first few carelessly handled by the media and authorities. The next other reported incidents had a remarkable change in tone, as if they realised suddenly that the people who were driven to this finality were fellow human beings who struggle and need to be reached out to, as opposed to criminals that dare escape the mortal prison that is called life.

And so, us as a country move forwards on lessons paid by the blood of fellow citizens. I do not know how she felt, but I can’t imagine it being anything pleasant.

Her world-weary tone carried on as she described how mental health patients are viewed in the country. She appeared saddened as she described family members seeking treatment but not wanting to be even seen going to the psychiatric clinic.

Why? Perhaps it is because they fear being labeled as ‘orang gila’ — a crazy person.

When it comes to mental health, I feel that public perception of anxiety and depression have came a long way here in this country. Everyone feels depression and anxiety every once in a while — a problem that is relatable, understandable, a subject often spoken about as a core issue whenever the discussion of mental health comes up in Brunei.

And it should be spoken about, statistically speaking, depression and anxiety are top-ranked mental health troubles in the country, though perhaps in that context it is still isn’t spoken about enough.

But what about those with slightly more severe symptoms which are not as relatable to your average person?

Bi-polar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, delusions, extreme OCD, ADHD — all life-changing mental illnesses that many are too ashamed to acknowledge.

“I want you to diagnose my child, but can you not do it here in the clinic? Maybe in a coffee shop?”, Dr Ho recounted one person asking.

Tired. Hearing those stories was exhausting to the soul. I wondered there and then about the duality of human nature, of darkness and light, the cruelty and compassion that a single person is willing to exhibit.

Is it pride then, which drives us to abandon the part of what makes us good?

Pride that causes a man to raise a hand against his child, blaming him for disgracing the family. Pride that cause a village head to berate the poor who dared share their story among the media, shaming the village.

Pride that make us turn our back against our most vulnerable, for fear of them making us look incapable, a black mark on our otherwise good name. In my honest opinion, people who have done so in belief that it will salvage pride, already have nothing to be proud of. Heaven is watching, so goes a Chinese saying, and the God-fearing in our nation should know better.

Perhaps it is not this useless pride that drives us to act this way, but instead fear.

Fear that our society will turn these people into outcasts, to treat their relatives, siblings or children as something other than normal, and by extension, themselves.

At the end of Dr Ho’s talk, the emcee carried a strangely happy tone as he announced the close of the session, his job done for the day.

I lingered for a moment after. There was plenty of people waiting to ask her questions in private, a line formed of sorts. I joined it, spoke briefly and then left, not wishing to be more of a bother than I already was, and also I had a meeting to get to.

I do not know how the future of our mental healthcare system will play out from here — the roles that our state, private and media actors have to play are quite deep and intricately linked.

In an interview with The Scoop and in some parts of the talk, Dr Ho spoke of hope. Despite what I felt was a hint of world-weariness, she still fought on. Things are getting better, more research is now being done to understand more, taboo is cast aside in favor of true knowledge.

And it needs to be so. Because so long as we cling onto the idea that these topics are too ‘taboo’ to look at, to discuss, to understand, so long as we cling onto useless pride, this pretense of ignoring real issues in hopes that they will go away, we as a nation will suffer for lessons others have already learned.


• Disclaimer: The views presented here are the author’s own, and do not represent the views of The Scoop, or any other organisation. 

• Editor’s note: This article is part of our Voices section, where we curate personal essays, columns and op-eds.