At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a collective consciousness resulted in a state of vigilance, but also an anxiety about uncertainties of the present and future. Brunei has responded to the challenges of coronavirus through increasing public awareness of mental health, alongside further services and support to improve mental well-being.
The COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted deep scars on the psyche of people around the world, whose daily livelihoods have been disrupted. Everyday activities such as commuting to the office, attending school, and taking trips to visit family and friends have been significantly impacted. Separations from family members due to quarantine orders and self-isolation notices have taken their toll, and the loss of loved ones who have succumbed to the coronavirus has also manifested itself in psychical trauma.
The little-known nation of Brunei Darussalam (or Brunei for short), with an absolute monarchy and located in equatorial Borneo island, has been propelled into the spotlight for its successful handling of the coronavirus public health crisis. Its citizens have come together in a show of solidarity to support the swift and unwavering initiatives of international border closures endorsed by the Sultan of Brunei, whose government also enhanced public connectedness via social media communication in an unprecedented time of social distancing.
In spite of this success, Brunei recorded its biggest economic budget deficit for the fiscal year 2021/2022 which hit a record-high of USD 21.3 billion. The economic downturn is predicted to enter its fourth year in 2022/2023. It is obvious that the pandemic has intensified the economic crisis in the oil-rich country, whose revenue had been severely affected by flagging oil prices in pre-pandemic times. Although basic necessities such as petrol, sugar, and rice have not seen a price increase, inflation has impacted other consumer products such as milk, vegetables, chicken and beef. Local vendors of nasi katok, a staple dish consisting of rice served with a piece of chicken, has also increased from BND $1 (approx. USD 0.70 cents) to BND $1.50 (approx. USD $1.10).
Meeting taboos and addressing mental health
The pandemic’s repercussions to mental health are manifesting themselves. A study of self-reported mental health disorders amongst medical doctors in Brunei published by the Brunei International Medical Journal marked their elevated levels of depression during the pandemic. A further study of the mental health challenges of migrant domestic workers in Brunei points to similar indications of high stress and anxiety in this group. It becomes evident that people from many walks of life – regardless of their class, race and gender – have suffered some psychological distress triggered by the socioeconomic and psychosomatic challenges of the pandemic.
Brunei’s Mental Health Action Plan 2021–2025 has been put in place to address mental health issues, including a rising trend of suicides amongst the younger generations. With Brunei’s Minister of Health acknowledging the pandemic’s role in exacerbating common mental health challenges of depression, anxiety and stress, it is imperative that change must happen from the ground up via initiatives from all parties to promote mental health awareness and well-being.
In post-pandemic times, mental health continues to be an urgent personal and public issue. The taboo around mental health challenges is being tackled in a way to open up vital conversations about safe spaces for seeking mental health services, including prompt counselling support, psychological therapy, and psychiatric consultations. Community-based organizations, such as Cope for Hope and Mind Your Mind, have facilitated and promoted mental health well-being through their public service campaigns. The national Mental Health Order of 2014, which replaced the 1929 Lunacy Act, has also done much to reshape the narrative around mental health issues. While the toll-free national Hope Line (Talian Harapan) set up by the Ministry of Health (MOH) continues to be a boon, access to mental health services for various communities such as youths, the underprivileged, and migrant workers has further room for improvement.
Shifting awareness and services for support
A whole-of-nation approach to ensuring access to mental health service is unfolding in post-pandemic times. If anything, the pandemic has caused an upward spiral towards a sense of social responsibility for mental well-being. Both government-led initiatives and public events co-organized by SMEs (small medium enterprises) and foreign embassies have led to an increasing publicity for, and an openness about, mental health issues in Bruneian communities.
In recent years, the Australian High Commission in Brunei has actively championed mental health initiatives, particularly via organizing open dialogues and roundtable sessions with mental health specialists in Brunei. During the Tiny Lit Festival 2021, the topic of mental health was the subject of a panel discussion and these kinds of activities help to challenge the stigma attached to mental illnesses, while also opening up necessary conversations about mental health services, access and communities.
In addition to community-based organizations and governmental agencies, outreach services are offered by religious organizations. These play a critical role in assisting needy and migrant communities during the pandemic. Also, such services support recovery in the post-pandemic era. In addition to counselling services, daily practical items like food packages are available for individuals and families whose incomes are affected by redundancy, a COVID-19 positive status, and stay-at-home directives. These measures help to relieve the mental stress of people having to feed themselves and their dependents in the pandemic, alleviating some effects of poverty.
Despite a public shift in an understanding of the importance of mental health, several challenges lie ahead. Access to mental health services remain riddled by views of mental illness as a symptom of spiritual depravity, where medicinal and research interventions are not warranted. For the young generations, the shame of suffering from mental health disorders and living with family members who may have their own prejudices against their seeking mental health services can obstruct access to assistance. Specialized mental health services can be costly too. For migrant workers, there are substantive obstacles to seeking professional assistance. Minimal insurance coverages and their work contracts may not accommodate mental health services.
The further stress of extended familial separation coupled with unregulated working hours in the pandemic has also led to increasing levels of anxiety. In post-pandemic times, rest and relaxation outside of staff houses and employers’ homes are options for foreign migrant workers as social isolation measures are eased to accommodate their days off at places of leisure in and beyond the city center. During weekends, many of them can be seen enjoying their time off with friends picnicking in open parks, and reconnecting with their family members through calls back home.
The mental repercussions of pandemic control measures, such as home-based online learning, on the younger population can also be observed. For school-aged children, a widening educational deficit due to a syllabus that most schools shrunk to fit into an online teaching schedule, alongside limited direct teacher support during home-based classes, has resulted in increased mental stress. Having children sit for long hours in front of computer screens with no respite to outdoor play in parks and public playgrounds during the pandemic also caused the Ministry of Health to release public service reminders of healthy habits and physical breaks to prevent screen time fatigue. Significantly, children found it difficult to stay attentive and were increasingly challenged to attend online classes in view of the mental strain of switching lessons to a virtual platform. A total switch to online learning in the pandemic also revealed a gap between the haves and have-nots, hence separating those who can purchase laptops from those who cannot afford them.
Expanding on individual and community well-being
Even as the pandemic has exposed racial and class inequities, it has also brought about a vital sense of a communal responsibility for ongoing efforts to destigmatize mental ill health, to which everyone is susceptible. A heightened awareness of mental health as a public agenda serves both the individual and community. It is evident that the pandemic has accelerated a critical discourse of mental well-being through an emphasis on the social need to address mental health challenges.
As we enter into the final quarter of 2022, it is hoped that elevated conversations of the importance of mental health will encourage the emergence of more services and remove barriers for common folk to access assistance. To complement this upward trend, research involving local medical practitioners and scholars is simultaneously being conducted on mental health issues to gather data to help in establishing baselines of empirical evidence, and trace shifting perceptions of mental health in popular culture that the pandemic has inevitably hastened.
Dr. Hannah Ho is an Assistant Professor at Universiti Brunei Darussalam and her current research focuses on mental health representations in Bruneian literature and the media. She has written on the COVID-19 pandemic in Brunei in scholarly articles and institutional blogs. Awarded a NUS (National University of Singapore) fellowship, she will be conducting further interdisciplinary studies on the effects of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia in 2023. She is also the co-editor of the volume Engaging Modern Brunei: Research on Language, Literature and Culture (Springer, 2021). For further information, please see her online academic profile.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.