Mind The Gap

15 February 2017

Hanna Alkaf dives straight into the local mental health industry to give Malaysians a sight we hardly get to see in her book, Gila: A Journey Through Moods & Madness.

Back in 2013, findings by the Malaysian Ministry of Health indicated that 10 percent of Malaysians will be affected by mental illness by 2020, which was forecasted to also be the second highest health problem after heart disease. This was in response to the National Health and Morbidity 2011 poll, which found that 12 percent of Malaysians are already suffering from a form of psychological morbidity, concluding that one in ten Malaysians will be faced with a mental health problem in their lifetime.

Despite these alarming numbers, the stigma towards mental illness is still very much prevalent in our society today. Having said that, students, health groups and non-governmental organisations have been going the extra mile to raise awareness and in turn, reduce the stigma.

Among the efforts that have been done include The Depressed Cake Shop, a series of pop-up bakery stores inspired by the same initiative done in the UK, and brought to Malaysia by Datin Sabrinah Morad. The main aim of the bake sale was to raise funds for NGOs that support mental health causes besides creating a space for dialogues and conversations about depression and other mental illnesses. After successful runs in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Penang, Sabrinah went on to organise Depressed Supper Club in May last year, a masquerade-themed charity dinner hosted by restaurants along Jalan Bangkung, Bangsar to raise funds for Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA).

University students are also persistently doing their part to continuously raise awareness. In 2012 and 2013, students from HELP University collaborated with Malaysian Psychological Association (MPA) to organise mental health campaigns in conjunction with World Mental Health Day. The campaigns included an experiential exhibition, fundraisers, performances and even a musical that focused on the themes of suicide and addiction.

Just last year, University of Malaya’s Department of Psychological Medicine together with Malaysian Medical Gazette, MMHA, MPA and Befrienders Kuala Lumpur organised a mental health art exhibition, which showcased artworks by people with mental health conditions.

Local writer Hanna Alkaf

Away from the usual campaigns and events, local writer Hanna Alkaf decided to raise awareness on mental health through publishing Gila: A Journey Through Moods & Madness, which focuses on the untold stories of Malaysians living with mental illness, the challenges faced by their caregivers as well as the struggles of mental health practitioners and the efforts done by local organisations. Published in May last year, Hanna tells us work on this project began as early as 2014.

“It all began when I was writing a series of articles on postpartum depression at the end of 2014,” recalls Hanna. “I spoke to three different women, and it surprised me that none of them sought help despite the severity of their conditions. One of them even told me that she would wake up in the middle of the night and imagine that her newborn baby had three glowing red eyes. To make it worse, she would hear voices telling her she should kill her baby. In fact, she told me this all matter-of-factly, as if she no longer felt anything about the experience.”

Towards the end of their conversations, Hanna discovered that all of them had their own ways of dealing with the condition, either through family or community support, or even through their faith. “But what I could not shake off was the fact that none of them had sought professional psychiatric or psychological help,” she says. “It’s just strange how we would easily turn to doctors to ease our physical pain but are always reluctant to seek help when we are mentally unwell.”
After completing her articles, Hanna continued research on the issue (she jokes that it’s mostly due to her kaypoh tendencies) and began to realise that the mental health industry was something worth writing about. This was when her real journey for Gila began.

“I needed to speak to people who knew what it was like to live with mental illnesses, so I started looking up support groups online and contacted the administrators of the group,” says Hanna. Besides that, she also obtained connections through the practitioners and organisations she interviewed at the time.

When it comes to the challenges she faced during the writing process, Hanna admits that it definitely wasn’t easy getting people to open up about their stories and struggles. “Most of them took time to open up and get comfortable with sharing, and I don’t blame them. The fact that they were willing enough to share them was already a brave step itself,” she says. “Besides, my encounters with them have helped me to read people better and also sharpened my interviewing skills. It taught me how to ask the right questions and prompt for the answers I was looking for.”

Another problem she encountered was this niggling question in her mind while conducting interviews: am I being helpful or am I being harmful?

“This was something inevitable,” explains Hanna. “I constantly had to check if I was using the right words or if I was being insulting in any way. I definitely did not want them to think I was going to misrepresent them or even waste their time. The only way I knew how to approach this was to be as honest and as open as I possibly can.”

For her book, Hanna interviewed a good ten to 12 people to better understand different types of mental illness, include depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. In the first few pages of Gila, readers are introduced to Visha, Azlan, Salina, Kim, Veera, Zed, Khairul and Tiara. However, instead of revealing their diagnoses straight away, Hanna only introduces them with their respective symptoms.

And that’s when the realisation starts to sink in for the reader: we know far too little (or almost nothing at all) about the things that people with mental illness have to go through. How could we progress to become a more understanding and accepting society?

“I wanted to focus a lot on the background stories of these people,” says Hanna. “I find it unfortunate that the reading materials on mental illnesses in Malaysia are too limited; they are either academic journals filled with medical and psychological jargons or sensationalised news about a schizophrenic who murdered someone and a depressed young kid who took his own life. But other than that, nothing.”

In line with this vision, Hanna decided that she was not only going to tell the stories of these individuals’ mental health problems, but also focus on their family relationships, their daily lives, how they cope with work and studies, and last but not least, how their caregivers deal with their conditions.

“I find that to be extremely important. People often forget that caregivers are humans too, and taking care of someone with mental illness can be very exhausting.”

On what she hopes to achieve with Gila, Hanna simply wants more people to read it and better understand the mental health conditions it highlights. “For those who are silently going through similar problems, I hope they will read this and realise that they are not alone. I hope they will see themselves in it, and maybe even gather the courage to get help.”

And perhaps that’s the most notable aspect of this book – the fact that it’s Malaysian, and how it’s able to reflect all of us. Statistics have shown that anyone could be affected at any point in their lives. Whether it does happen or not, the responsibility still lies in us to build an open and understanding community, to support those with mental illness and make them feel safe and welcomed.

Gila: A Journey Through Moods & Madness by Hanna Alkaf is available at Gerakbudaya, RM25.

By Dhabitah Zainal

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