Sabrinah Morad grew up under the shadow of mental illness and knows first hand how the topic is not one usually raised openly in Malaysian society.
“Mental illness is viewed with prejudice and not taken seriously enough,” says the author, who grew up around family members who suffered from depression.
“Culturally, we live in a fairly superstitious society, where mental illness can be misdiagnosed as [someone] being charmed by black magic or possessed by evil spirits.
“There’s a real need for Malaysian society to destigmatize this illness, and the only way to do that is to talk about it very openly, in the hope of creating awareness about what it really is.”
Morad’s new children’s book tries to do exactly that. Looking at depression from a child’s perspective, Grey Bear Days has just hit shelves and it centers around an eight-year-old boy, Little Bee, who must deal with a gray bear who “steals” his mother.
Dismayed by the bear’s disruptive, invasive presence, the young protagonist’s journey of living and coping with a parent affected by depression sees him shift from anger to acceptance, as he eventually comes to understand his mother’s illness and both their roles in fighting it.
As dark a topic as this may seem for children’s literature, Grey Bear Days is a much-needed conversation starter for what is always a difficult subject to broach between children and adults – and all the more so in Malaysia, where mental illness is commonly viewed as a taboo subject or swept under the carpet entirely.
“It is very misunderstood here, and there are many misconceptions about it because people are ill-informed about mental illness,” says Datin Sabrinah Morad, the author of Grey Bear Days.
Drawing on her own childhood experiences, Morad – who was also responsible for bringing the Depressed Cake Shop to Malaysia four years ago, in order to get Malaysians talking about mental health issues – is keen to lift the stigma that continues to stifle the country. “There’s so much shame attached to mental illness, even when it comes to admitting that someone in your family is affected.
“In the UK and USA, celebrities have come out and actually declared that they have this illness, or there are spokespeople who talk about it.
“It’s such a shame that we don’t have Malaysian personalities willing to speak out for those with mental illness, or to go public about suffering from depression. It could reach out to so many people. But here, there is the fear that acknowledging it will destroy your career, or that you’ll be written off as gila [the Malay word for ‘crazy’].”
Such attitudes have had a severe knock-on effect on the state of Malaysia’s healthcare system, where mental health professionals are sometimes perceived as less skilled or less significant, even within the local medical community.
The current ratio of psychiatrists to the country’s general population stands at 1:150,000, making it incredibly difficult for people to gain access to proper treatment or caregivers outside of major cities like Kuala Lumpur.
“It takes time to train psychiatrists through a four-year local masters program, and only four Malaysian universities offer such courses. The lack of a good National Institute for Mental Health, like in Singapore, is also a hindrance to training psychiatrists and other mental health professionals, such as clinical psychologists,” explains Dr Ang Kim Teng, Secretary General of the Malaysian Mental Health Association. “This should be a national priority – mental health is increasingly becoming a major health burden as the country develops.”
While Malaysia’s Ministry of Health is attempting to move mental health treatment from hospitals to community mental health centers through a five-year National Strategic and Action Plan for Suicide Prevention, it’s also aiming to raise the ratio of psychiatrists to the general population to 1:50,000.
In the meantime, Grey Bear Days will hopefully prompt not one, but two generations of Malaysians to ask questions and seek answers about mental illness, with all its nuances and complexities.
“It’s not the topic that’s difficult for children, but how you introduce them to it,” Morad said. “If people are willing to tell their own stories without fear, we can talk about the illness without prejudice and shame.
“It doesn’t just take bravery from the mother as she fights the gray bear, which stands as a metaphor for depression in the book. The boy has to be brave too, and carry on without his mother until she seeks help for her condition.”