BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Nearly 300 nuisance calls were made to the mental health helpline, six months after it was launched to help prevent suicide.

The ‘Talian Harapan 145’ answered 1,318 calls since it was launched on February 12 this year, but many were either abusive or prank calls.

Fourteen calls were categorised as abusing the helpline such as filing complaints or threatening the operators who are trained counsellors. A total of 279 calls were not related to the service such as prank calls asking for pizza delivery.

Three crisis calls were made, which required 145 helpline operators to request dispatch of emergency services.

In an interview with The Scoop, consultant psychiatrist Dr Hilda Ho said the high-risk callers were those who talked about killing or hurting themselves or those who have already committed acts of self-harm.

There were also 588 calls where the callers hung up once they were connected to the operator.

Dr Ho said, “Some callers would [hang up] when they noticed that the person on the other line is a man.

“We also noticed that when the shift changes and the operator is a woman, then they [the same callers] would talk. I think some of the callers are just [mustering their confidence] and checking out [the helpline] but that is okay. The whole idea is to offer help to those in distress,” she added.

Source:Ministry of Health

The helpline is a pilot service under the Ministry of Health that was launched in the wake of rising suicide cases between 2016 and 2017. The helpline however covers all mental health issues such as depression and self-harm.

Dr Ho said when they first launched the helpline, they did not know what the public perception would be.

“We knew that there is a [public health] crisis, and that we have to respond in a way that the whole population can reach us. The easiest thing is to provide a helpline so everybody can reach us, but we were not sure who would use this and how receptive they would be,” she said.

On average, the hotline receives about six calls in a day. The service is free, confidential  and operates seven days a week from 8am to 11pm.

Asked whether there are plans to extend the service to 24 hours a day, Dr Ho said, “Currently, we can manage the current number of calls, and we’re not having a lot of calls after 11pm. Unless there is a sudden surge [of calls after 11pm], we are not going to extend the service to 24 hours”.

Head of Clinical & Community Psychology Services Yusri Hj Kifle said the helpline is mostly active after working hours, from 7pm to 9pm.

“During the day, the helpline is active after 10am but these calls mostly enquire about information on mental health services and are not really crisis calls. We observed that crisis calls are usually after 10pm,” he said. The service also is equipped with a system to monitor calls outside of the operating hours.

Head of Clinical & Community Psychology Services Yusri Hj Kifle (L) and consultant psychiatrist Dr Hilda Ho. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

Some 143 calls were also made to enquire information on the mental health service and other administrative matters.

Dr Ho said majority of the callers were young and of school age, an indication that younger people were more receptive to speaking about their mental health issues.

Some asked for help for themselves, while others called on behalf of their friends who needed help. Parents have also dialled the helpline voicing concerns about their children’s mental health.

As a result, psychology clinics are seeing an increase in walk-in patients. The clinics recorded 67 walk-in patients from February to June this year.

However, Dr Ho said there are still people in crisis who are not seeking professional help.

“We are not getting a lot of middle-aged people calling in… how do we reach out to them? As you know, males have higher risk of suicide internationally.”

The government’s spending on the hotline was not disclosed but Dr Ho said the helpline must be utilised to keep the service running.

“We want to tell the public, if you want to keep this service please use it properly. We are very keen to keep it because it is crucial. We want to make sure that people are aware of its existence. Some people are scared of calling us and we want to encourage them to call us,” she added.