The recent spike in number of Covid-19 cases has been accompanied by an increase in use of antidepressants, experts say, sending worrying signals about the state of mental health in the country as daily cases remain firmly in the four-figure range.
They say the development is of concern given the rise in number of people seeking mental health treatment since last year, which hit a peak between April and June during the movement control order (MCO) period.
Amrahi Buang, president of the Malaysian Pharmacists Society, referred to health ministry statistics showing that from January to June last year, 465 patients attempted suicide.
“This all happened during the Covid-19 infection period, so it’s clear that the trend began spiking during the MCO compared to the recovery MCO period from July to September,” he told MalaysiaNow, adding however that official data on the consumption of antidepressants is still being compiled by the health ministry.
He said frontline workers such as doctors and pharmacists have also been given antidepressants to help them cope with the stress of working in Covid-19 wards.
“We also know that the government has made counselling services available to them,” he added.
In Malaysia, antidepressants are classified as a controlled substance, requiring a presecription from certified doctors or pharmacists.
According to the health ministry’s portal, there are four types of antidepressants available – Trisiklik (Tricyclic), Reversible Inhibitors of Monoamine Oxidase type A (RIMAs), Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) and Serotonin and Noradrenaline Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs) – all of which require different dosages.
In October, the National Health and Morbidity Survey showed that nearly half a million Malaysians suffer from depression, of which 424,000 are children diagnosed as early as 14 years old.
Amhari said the situation would likely become worse as the Covid-19 situation continues, adding that immediate action should be taken.
“Depression is to be expected in many cases.”
He hailed the RM344.82 million allocation set aside in the 2021 budget for mental healthcare, but said it was still less than 1% of the total amount set aside for healthcare. In countries such as Britain and the US, he added, allocations for mental healthcare are on average 2.8% of the health budget.
Dr Steven Chow, president of the Federation of Private Medical Practitioners’ Associations Malaysia, agreed that there had been an increase in intake of antidepressants in the private sector.
He said such drugs are given when patients are no longer able to alleviate their stress levels through counselling sessions with certified pyschiatrists.
“It is because they are unable to cope. Depression is to be expected in many cases.
“Their family and doctors will decide what is needed and monitor the use of the medication to get them back to normal,” he told MalaysiaNow.
Amhari also voiced concern over the shortage of psychiatrists with figures from 2018 showing only 410 registered psychiatrists in the country – a ratio of 1.27:100,000 or one doctor per 100,000 mentally ill patients. This is far short of the World Health Organization’s recommended ratio of 1:10,000.
However, he said other counselling services are also available such as the government’s Talian Kasih hotline and the Befrienders.
He also advised people to maintain a healthy lifestyle, saying this can help ensure good mental health.