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What I learnt from losing a loved one to a mental health battle

What I learnt from losing a loved one to a mental health battle

Living with loss

Text: Natalie Khoo

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Image: GoodStudio/Shutterstock

Last year, my brother was one of the 631 cases of deaths by suicide in Malaysia. Here’s my story and what I hope people will understand about mental health

(Trigger warning: This story includes content on depression and suicide)

It has been over nine months since I became an only child. I know I’m not alone in my experience of sibling grief—especially when we’re still in the midst of a pandemic that has robbed millions of lives around the world. However, my grief stems from a different kind of pandemic—one that many have heard of and some have even spoken about, but still so few truly grasp.

On October 14, 2020, my older brother Brian Khoo Yew Jin committed suicide. He was only 28. This is the person who has known me from birth; who has lived in the room across mine for 25 years; who attended the same primary and secondary schools three years ahead of me; and who influenced my participation in sports and adrenaline activities—many of which he played my partner in crime.

Never would I have imagined that he’d succumb to the mental health pandemic that took 631 lives last year alone. And not a day has gone by since that I don’t think about him or what happened, why, and what could have been. But this isn’t an account of his suicide story; I have already spoken publicly about that following his death.

This is an account of the lessons I’ve learnt since I lost my brother to the dark battles he fought alone, in hopes that it may help provide insight or solace if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts.

I learnt why trigger warnings are important

I’ll be honest: As a writer, it would have made sense to use the word ‘suicide’ in the headline of this article. But there’s a reason why trigger warnings exist, and I’ll confess that I never truly understood them until I personally experienced what they warn about. For the unacquainted, a trigger warning is a statement at the start of a piece of content (be it in text, audio, or video format) to alert the reader or viewer that it contains potentially distressing material.

What I learnt from losing a loved one to a mental health battle (фото 1)
Illustration by Hillary Griffin

There are debates to this day on whether trigger warnings are effective or necessary. While I can’t speak for everyone, my personal experience tells me they are. Even now, when I come across the word suicide, I almost instantly feel my heart palpitations and think of my brother. It’s a fleeting moment and I usually am able to regulate my emotions after, but it still happens. If I feel it, I’m certain others do too—some possibly to a worser extent.

On the contrary, trigger warnings help me to anticipate the subject beforehand. I find that I’m generally more prepared and receptive towards sensitive content (particularly on suicide) with trigger warnings than those without. This is why I make it a point to include them wherever relevant, and why I hope my fellow journalists and all content creators will consider doing so too.

I learnt to recognise the symptoms and not take them lightly

It’s one thing to acknowledge that mental health issues exist; it’s another thing entirely to be educated on the symptoms. While I’m a communications graduate, I had also taken up several psychology subjects in university, so I wasn’t ignorant of the symptoms of common mental disorders such as depression (major depressive disorder) and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

The part that haunts me—and remains the cause of my lingering guilt—is that I saw the signs.

My brother was never diagnosed, but he had not been himself in the weeks before he took his own life. He sighed unusually often, his appetite had changed, and he barely spoke. When he did, his voice sounded sombre and strained. On hindsight, it seems blatantly clear that he needed more than my family’s support—he needed psychiatric treatment for what I now concede as symptoms of depression. But for some reason I can’t explain, it just didn’t hit me then.

Maybe I didn’t want to believe it or maybe I was too caught up with living my own life. Whatever the reason, I’ve learnt the hardest way possible not to take the signs lightly now.

Symptoms aren’t just something to look out for in others, it’s important to know for your own sake too. There’s a difference between feeling sad, anxious and/or disoriented, and having a mental disorder. Having a good support system may help with the former, but you need professional intervention when it comes to the latter.

When in doubt, always ask questions and look for answers. Don’t brush things aside.

I learnt to be kind to others (and myself)

Not many people know this, but the day before my brother died, another friend opened up to me about their suicidal thoughts. I thank God that I was able to support my friend that day, but little did I know my own brother had those same thoughts running through his mind.

I remember very clearly thinking to myself after I heard the news from my father, who was the first in my family to find out about my brother’s death: “How could I have been there for my friend but not my own brother?”

“Why did he not tell me what he was going through?”

“What if I had made more time for him?”

I don’t know if it would have made a difference, but at least then I would have had the chance to try. I still wake up with those questions plaguing my mind on some mornings, as recent as a week ago. My heart aches inexplicably in those moments, but I’ve accepted that I can’t change what happened. I can only try to ensure it doesn’t happen to someone else.

After I shared my brother’s story, many other friends, acquaintances, and even strangers have confided in me with their mental health problems. Most of them were related to depression, while a few were suicidal. No two individuals who did so had the same struggles or triggers. If I knew not to judge a book by its cover before, I am even more convinced now that everyone is fighting a battle others know nothing about. Please, be kind.

I learnt that it’s okay to prioritise my own mental health

Being a suicide loss survivor has impelled me to be more vocal about mental health. But the truth is that sometimes the burden feels too heavy and I get overwhelmed with trying to be there for others when some days, it takes a lot to even show up for myself.

I often find myself caught between two fires: one that I’m trying to put out (mental health issues) and another that I’m trying to keep aflame (my own mental health). The more I try to put out the first fire, the faster the other burns out. When I turn to tend the latter’s flames, the former blazes up again.

Yes, mental health advocacy is a burden that I’ll carry with me for life. I will never stop speaking about it, but I am learning that I deserve to take a step back when I have to. I deserve to keep my fire burning while others step in to put the other fire out.

I am learning not to be too hard on myself if I can’t help everyone.

I am learning to practise what I preach and not feel guilty for asking for help from my own support system.

I am still learning—against my perfectionist tendencies and my ego telling me I’m not doing enough—that sometimes, I need to let go.

Rest is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of wisdom for taking care of the body that works so hard to keep me—and my loved ones—alive and well.

I learnt that it starts with awareness, but it doesn’t end there

I’m grateful that mental health is less of a taboo now compared to just a decade ago. With that said, it is important not to confuse awareness with treatment. Simply talking about stress, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts does little, if not accompanied with resources and tools to cope with or overcome them. Just like physical health—where it’s not enough to be aware of illnesses without implementing a good diet and exercise—it’s equally important to practice mindful habits in order to maintain good mental health.

Awareness is the first step to understanding mental health issues. Action has to follow to nurture resilient minds.

With this, I’ll leave you with some further resources to empower action for your mental health:

What I learnt from losing a loved one to a mental health battle (фото 2)

On a final note, I learnt that mental health is not a destination, it’s an undulating journey. May we all be patient with ourselves and others in the process.


If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please do not hesitate to contact any of the following hotlines:

Malaysian Mental Health Association
Contact: 03 7782 5499

Talian Kasih
Hotline: 15999 (24 hours)
WhatsApp: 019 261 5999

Think I Need Aid (TINA)
WhatsApp: 018 988 8058

Women’s Aid Organisations (WAO)
Hotline: 03 7956 3488