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According to Malaysia’s National Health and Morbidity Survey 2015, mental ill-health is expected to be the second biggest health problem affecting Malaysians by 2020.

It’s estimated that one in three people in the country will suffer some form of mental health issue in their lifetime, such as anxiety, stress, or depression. While the projections seem bleak, thankfully there are many organisations and initiatives geared towards alleviating the problem of mental ill-health.

Part of the problem that’s difficult to manage, however, is that people often find it hard to open up and talk about their issues that affect mental health – particularly within a culture that puts a premium on saving face.

Traditionally – in the West and the East – showing emotions has been viewed as a weakness that demonstrates a lack of resilience.

When I was in my teens, I had a fascinating conversation with my grandad that has stuck in my mind ever since. Even in his 60s and 70s, he was a burly man and certainly no weakling. I asked him about the idea that “boys shouldn’t cry” and received an unexpected response from the ex-army man sitting across from me.

He told me, “People say that crying is a weakness, and that only girls should be allowed to cry. But crying isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength – it takes a lot for a person to show how they feel.”

I pressed him and asked, “But if crying’s a strength, why do people say we shouldn’t do it?”

My grandad replied, “Because people don’t know how to deal with feelings – and that’s a weakness.”

At the time, I nodded along sagely, but it would be a few more years until I had any real understanding of what he meant and how it affects mental health.

In life, we have order and chaos. Things like rational thought, rules, etiquette, and composure exist within an order that we can easily understand and happily work with. Whenever the order is broken, it’s difficult to make sense of the resultant chaos, and rather than try to make sense of what’s happening, it’s easier to dismiss or wish it away as quickly as possible.

The understanding of how our minds work is still in its infancy, and what we don’t understand we tend to fear. If we break an arm, people know how to help us fix it. If we get anxious or stressed, they feel much less equipped to support us in dealing with our mental health.

Nevertheless, most of us experience anxiety, stress, depression and trauma at some points in our lives, and some suffer more than others. Recently, I corresponded with a young woman here about the anxiety she suffers. A few years ago, she unexpectedly lost her father, and in her struggle to cope with the grief, she found her self-assurance and confidence had all but left her. She finds herself in a constant state of struggle, although she can “put on a brave face” to help her get through each day.

Like many of us, she tries hard to suppress difficult emotions that arise; sadly, this only serves to compound the suffering, which will always find some way to manifest itself as a mental health issue. It’s sad to hear people say that they don’t wish to be a burden on their families, but it’s an understandable reaction given that so many of us are uncomfortable with having conversations about grief, stress, and trauma.

Nonetheless, it’s something that we should all address. We can start by asking, “How are you?” of those around us and showing that we’re genuinely willing to listen to what they have to say. Burying our heads in the sand is a dangerous strategy that has long term implications for the mental health of our friends, families, and wider society. We also miss out on one of the most precious aspects of life: forming authentic, deeper connections with the people we love.

When we find the courage to open up to one another, not only do we allow the opportunity for our troubles to be shared, but we give each other permission to show ourselves as we really are, which can considerably strengthen the bonds between us.

In his book, The Trauma Of Everyday Life (2013), psychotherapist Mark Epstein notes, “When we stop distancing ourselves from the pain in the world, our own or others’, we create the possibility of a new experience, one that often surprises because of how much joy, connection, or relief it yields. Destruction may continue, but humanity shines through.”

The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that the greatest gift we can give to someone is our presence. So much of our struggles stem from feelings of loneliness, isolation, and being misunderstood. All of that could be reduced if we were more present for our friends and family: we should never underestimate the difference that being there for someone can make.

Finding the courage to have deep conversations might initially feel uncomfortable; however, so much can come from going beyond the small talk to find out if our loved ones are doing OK. Having just one conversation can reaffirm a deep level of love and support. It could be enough to ease the heaviness of someone’s burden, and it could even save their life.

Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, e-mail star2@thestar.com.my.

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