Excellence award: Volunteer team in Malaysia gets social to help youth with mental illness

Jack Manning
“The sad stigma about
mental health was making
it a silent killer and
I really wanted to help
change behaviors,”
says Sharon Yap (left).

Jack Manning
“The sad stigma about
mental health was making
it a silent killer and
I really wanted to help
change behaviors,”
says Sharon Yap (left).

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 15 to 29, while depression is the top cause of illness and disability among adolescents, according to the World Health Organization.

In Malaysia, mirroring some other parts of the world, the incidents of self-harm, depression and anxiety may be on the rise with young people.

The New Straits Times reported earlier in 2018 that the Malaysian Health Ministry says the state of mental health problems among students in the country is worsening: from one in 10 individuals in 2011 to one in five in 2016.

With that as background, Sharon Yap, an on-boarding specialist for IBM in Malaysia, along with two other IBM colleagues started a volunteer project to further address the concern of mental health issues in their country.

“In 2017, I spoke with Tiffany Mervin, our IBM corporate citizenship manager, about volunteer opportunities and she introduced me to the Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA),” says Sharon. “I knew the sad stigma about mental health was making it a silent killer and really wanted to help change behaviors.”

Sharon, together with Esther Lim Chwen Ai and Jerrod Jan Chun Wai—who are both no longer at IBM—volunteered to help MMHA.

In the end, MMHA opened an effective new channel to help those with mental illness, and the three-person IBM team earned a 2017 IBM Volunteer Excellence Award.

Plan the work, work the plan

Some compelling statistics suggest that if you want to reach younger people in Malaysia, social media is the way to do it.

In 2017, the average Malaysian spent three hours a day using social media—enough to rank 9th in the world (Source: Globalwebindex, 2Q and 3Q 2017 survey).

Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of people in Malaysia using the most popular social media channels are between the ages of 18 and 34—roughly the age range of the rise in mental illness related concerns.

MMHA’s overarching goal was to create mental health awareness among younger generations, promote advocacy and dispel some of the stigma. Strengthening the organization’s social media eminence would be vital to reaching young people.

MMHA, Sharon and her IBM colleagues quickly determined the objectives of the project to increase traffic to MMHA’s Facebook pages and grow the number of likes, follows, shares, comments, tags and views.

Thanks to an IBM Impact Grant, which provides consulting expertise and technologies to support educational and nonprofit organizations, work had previously been done by IBM on a social media analysis for MMHA.

“Esther, Jerrod and I worked together to brain storms ideas, create a resource repository and call to actions for social media based on the media plan that had been developed by IBM Strategists Susan Slocum and Clare Disney,” says Sharon. “Essentially, we took a plan, refined it, proposed tangible and actionable items to achieve that plan, and led the execution of several activities.”

Significant results

Sharon and the other IBM volunteers focused on branding, personas and an understanding of the target audience, identifying relevant content and themes for posting, online collaboration with other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and measurements.

They also enlisted other IBMers to spread the word in a campaign they created called #KeepsMeWell.

“We launched the program during World Mental Health Day in October, 2017,” says Sharon. “We called on IBMers to share—on Facebook or Twitter with videos, photos or posts—the things that keep them well at work. Of course, we also asked them to tag MMHA.”

Among several other social media-oriented activities, the volunteers promoted a “Food and Funfair” through the IBM Club to raise money and awareness of MMHA’s efforts.

Another approach was to organize a mental wellness seminar at IBM in November, 2017.

“The talk was only for managers, and it was conducted by a psychologist who is an executive at MMHA, and a contributor to the media on mental health issues,” says Sharon. “We got good reviews and comments from the managers, and were asked for more sessions.”

After about nine months of developing and executing their plan, the team delivered some significant results.

Engagement on MMHA’s social media page has increased by 50 times, while the fundraising fair exceeded its target by more than 20%.

People need people

However, it might be the real life stories that make the effort even more impressive.

MMHA tells of a young woman who reached out to MMHA even though she had been seeing a counselor.

“Typically, people might suffer in silence, but this girl wasn’t having a good day and might have been suicidal,” Sharon says. “With a social channel she was comfortable contacting us, and we spent time talking to her, ultimately getting her back to her counselor.”

In another case, a young Malaysian man studying in Thailand and going through depression reached MMHA through personal messaging on Facebook and found relief chatting about his difficulties.

“A further example of the power of this channel to help with mental illness was a girl who was cutting herself, self-harm because of cyberbullying,” remembers Sharon. “She reached out to MMHA who successfully convinced her to get treatment; they still support her today.”

Social techniques, such as personal messaging to counsel young people, are now a regular part of MMHA’s programs.

“Volunteering is one of my passions and the opportunity to participate in this project enabled me to learn more about mental health and how we can bring a positive change in the society,” Sharon says.

“I’ve learned to be vigilant and sensitive to the people around us—while technology can help open a door, it’s still people like you and me who need to be there for others with mental illness; people need people.”

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