Coup, COVID take toll on young people’s mental health in Myanmar

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 Thawng 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.”

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.

‘Hopeless and helpless’

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.”

She noted that since the coup, seven out of every 10 patients she treats express suicidal intent, whereas, before the coup, there were only two or three cases every three months.

Only last week, in an incident that was shared widely online, five young people, four men and one woman jumped off a building in Yangon to escape a raid by security forces. It was later confirmed that two of the five had died.

For many Myanmar people, deep-seated fear of the military stems from experiences that they have either had or heard about under the previous military regime that controlled the country for nearly 60 years until 2010. Even for today’s Generation Z that grew up in a more democratic Myanmar, the fear of another decades-long fight against the same military forces looms large and has triggered an onslaught of mental health challenges.

“Our grandparents and parents already fought this and spent years in prison or passed away. If this isn’t over yet, is it going to be the same for us with decades more of military rule?” asked Phyu Pannu Khin, a member of the Myanmar diaspora in the United States and a PhD candidate in clinical psychology who has been offering mental health services online to those in Myanmar since the coup.

“There’s an intergenerational trauma and a loss of future and hope. For our [younger] generation, we have experienced relative freedom under the civilian government – we have tasted freedom and we had dreams, so it’s especially devastating now that this has all been taken away.”

COVID-19 and a lack of resources

The return to military rule is not the only source of depression and anxiety in the country.

While Myanmar managed to keep COVID-19 at bay during the first year of the pandemic, cases quickly began rising in July when a third wave hit. To date, 14,499 COVID-19 related deaths have been recorded but the real number is believed to be much higher.

Given the lack of resources, with hospitals closed and the military hoarding medicine and oxygen, a sense of helplessness has triggered an uptick in survivors’ guilt as the population struggles to save loved ones who are injured or sick.

“With COVID-19 people are asking for oxygen and medical treatment but are not receiving these essential things. We are seeing our family members dying in front of us and most people are self-blaming and feeling guilty,” said Cherry Soe Myint.

“Even though I am a mental health specialist and I know how to cope, I am also feeling survivors’ guilt, but I try and change my thinking. Why do I need to live? Why did my father pass away? It wasn’t because of me but the situation in the country.”

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