Coup, Covid take toll on young people’s mental health in Myanmar
International desk || shiningbd
Van Thawng Thawng’s phone buzzed as a series of notifications lit up the screen.
“Has anyone spoken to Ezekiel?” someone was asking in the Chin Student Union Facebook group, an organisation representing students from Myanmar’s northwestern Chin state. But no one had heard from the 20-year-old union leader.
A week later, on April 14, a friend called Van Thawng Thawng to tell him that Ezekiel’s body had been found.
They believed he had been beaten to death by security forces. Van Thawing Thawng was devastated.
“I just feel really stressed and angry, especially towards the military. Because Ezekiel is not the only one,” said Van Thawng Thawng, a former Chin student who serves as the general secretary of the same union. “One of my classmates was detained and another was killed trying to save his sister at a protest, and my mom, uncle and grandmother have all died in the last few months.”
While Van Thawng Thawng’s mom passed away from a long battle with cancer, he believes his uncle and grandmother both had COVID-19 given their symptoms but with limited testing, he doesn’t know for certain.
“Everyone is dying and everyone is feeling depressed. It’s hard to comfort people and make them feel better.”
Across Myanmar, young people are reporting feelings of anger, sadness and helplessness following the military’s power grab on February 1 and its brutal suppression of anti-coup protests. They say these feelings have only increased since July when COVID-19 cases exploded in the country.
Today, many are struggling with the grief of losing loved ones to disease and violence.
Yet, forced to grapple with more immediate dangers like basic safety and access to medicine, attention to mental health has taken a back seat. But experts say the psychological toll is becoming impossible to ignore as rates of depression and suicide rise.
Mental health in Myanmar has long since been a taboo topic, with depression and anxiety believed to be signs of weakness that should be handled privately. But with mental illness on the rise, counsellors are worried about the consequences if mental health continues to be pushed aside.
Cherry Soe Myint is a freelance counsellor in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, working in collaboration with the Applied Mental Health Research Group at Johns Hopkins University. Having recently lost her father and aunt, she has experienced first-hand the mental health impact that the coup, and now COVID-19, has had in Myanmar.
Recognising the severity of the crisis, she has been offering counselling services free of charge to those who cannot afford to pay for professional help.
“When I talk with my clients, I notice their suicidal rates because they are hopeless and helpless. They are thinking that they have no future, that they can’t overcome this really troubling situation, so they think about killing themselves,” said Cherry Soe Myint.
“One young woman, her aunt and grandmother passed away at the end of July and she thought they died because she didn’t do enough to save them. She hung herself. And this kind of event is increasing – the suicide risk is increasing.”