Thai Mental Health Dept: 'No more than 2 hours of political news to avoid stress'

By Saksith Saiyasombut

On the Friday the 13th, when the Constitutional Court was about to deliver the verdict against the Thai government and their proposals to amend the constitution that was feared to throw the country into yet another political crisis, the Mental Health Department of the Public Health Ministry recommended all Thais "not to follow political news for more than two hours in a sitting" to avoid being stressed out or even turning agressive in process amidst ongoing political conflict.

นพ.ยงยุทธ วงศ์ภิรมย์ศานติ์ หัวหน้าทีมโฆษกกรมสุขภาพจิต และนายกสมาคมจิตแพทย์แห่งประเทศไทย กล่าวว่า ระหว่างรอฟังคำวินิจฉัยของศาลรัฐธรรมนูญ  (...) แต่ต้องยอมรับว่ากรณีที่เกิดขึ้นประชาชนต่างมีความตื่นตัวทางการเมืองมากขึ้น ถือเป็นรากฐานสำคัญของการพัฒนาประเทศ แต่ทั้งนี้คงไม่สามารถคาดการณ์ได้ว่าจะเกิดอะไรขึ้นในอนาคต แต่เชื่อว่าประชาชนส่วนใหญ่ไม่ต้องการให้เกิดความรุนแรง ซึ่งการคาดการณ์ความรุนแรงที่จะเกิดขึ้นยิ่งทำให้วิตกกังวลและเครียด อาจส่งผลให้เกิดโรคเครียดทางการเมืองได้ (Political Stress Syndrome : PSS)

Yongyuth Wongpiromsan MD, head spokesman of the Mental Health Department and president of the Psychiatric Association of Thailand says that in anticipation of the verdict by the Constitutional Court, (...) but we have to accept that the people have increased political awareness which can be considered as an important foundation of the national progress. However, we cannot predict what will happen in the future but we believe that the majority of the people do not want violence. Thus, [reports about] expecting an outbreak of violence can cause anxiety and stress, which could result in Political Stress Syndrome (PSS)

"กรมสุขภาพจิต เตือนประชาชนระวังเครียดการเมือง", MCOT, July 13, 2012 - translation by me

Furthermore, the press release included a list of symptoms that could come with PSS, both physical (irregular breathing, abdominal pain and all sorts of other aches) and psychological (disenchantment, insomnia, anxiety and anger). Should one be unsure about his or her mental condition, he or she can take a test to measure if somebody has PSS or not and, when appropriate, seek counseling. The questions are:

1) "Do you feel anxiety when expressing political opinions?", 2) "Do you feel hopelessness regarding the current political situation?", 3) "Do political news make you feel easily upset or angry?", 4) "The political situation keeps you awake at night?", 5) "Are you unfocused at your job or daily activities when thinking about politics?" 6) "Politics causes fights and arguments with others" 7) "Are you feeling afraid when following political news" 8) "Are you repeatedly thinking about the political situation"

Now, given Thailand's recent history it would certainly not be a new phenomenon. Actually, it was coined by the same department right at the beginning of this political crisis back in 2006:

One-fourth of Thais are likely to develop political stress syndrome (PSS) - a new mental ailment triggered by fierce political tension, Mental Health Department chief said yesterday. (...) "The risk group includes politicians, protesters and supporters of the government, news addicts, and people with mental health problems," said M.L. Somchai Chakrabhand.

The PSS, he said, was a new medical term developed by the department after studying the linkage between political tensions and people's mental health.

''Psychiatrists are afraid that people with accumulated PSS symptoms will resort to violent means to break the political dead end because they feel that a peaceful movement is not a solution to the impasse,'' he said. M.L. Somchai said it was the first time the department detected this kind of mental illness in the country.

"Crisis triggers 'political stress syndrome'", Bangkok Post, circa March 17, 2006 - found here

In conclusion, Yongyuth gives his advice on how to deal with PSS and also how everybody can contribute responsibly to reduce widespread political anxiety.

อย่างไรก็ตามการสื่อสารในเครือข่าย Internet ควรลดความรุนแรงในการแสดงอารมณ์และความคิดเห็นการแสดงออก (...) แต่จะส่งผลกระทบให้เกิดบรรยากาศของสังคมที่รุนแรงมากขึ้น ดังนั้น การสื่อสารในเครือข่ายฯ นี้ ควรเพิ่มความระมัดระวังในการออกความคิดเห็น ไม่ส่งต่อความคิดเห็นที่รุนแรงออกไป รวมทั้งช่วยกันตักเตือนการแสดงออกที่รุนแรง ซึ่งทุกคนสามารถช่วยให้สังคมไทยผ่านวิกฤติครั้งนี้ไปได้ ด้วยการแสดงออกอย่างสร้างสรรค์ แก้ไขความขัดแย้งโดยไม่ใช้ความรุนแรง ไม่สร้างความโกรธ ความเกลียดชัง ลดการเผชิญหน้า และร่วมกันหาทางออกให้กับประเทศ.

Nevertheless, when exchanging views on the internet, the intensity of the emotions and opinions expressed should be reduced (...) that can have a negative impact on the social mood, which would increase [the chance of] violence. Thus, these kind of online discussions should be more careful in their expression of opinions, they should not spread agressive views and help reminding those who do, so that everyone can help the Thai society to overcome this crisis by being constructive, by bridging the divide without violence, anger, hatred, confrontation in order to find a solution for the country together.

"กรมสุขภาพจิต เตือนประชาชนระวังเครียดการเมือง", MCOT, July 13, 2012 - translation by me

First off, PSS is not an officially recognized syndrome, rather it is a coined term to describe the accompanying side effects of a growing political consciousness (which has been acknowledged as a good thing above), where people do take interest in the political decision-making that has an influence on them and thus in return demand to have a say in that.

Also, the recent years have shown that there are more and more competing narratives about the recent history of Thailand and the directions this country should take in the coming years. Never before have important, but previously taboo issues (such as the often-mentioned lèse-majesté law) been debated so openly (as far as it is legally possible) in the public domain. Sure, it can get messy, sometimes downright nasty. But it is also a chance to show that there is no more only one single sovereign authority that defines things anymore!

Be it from the press - who should do their duty and, while optionally opinionated, report truthful (and not just "20 per cent" of it "when you read The Nation and Bangkok Post", as Thitinan remarked) - or from a fellow man, what is important is a tolerance to opinions and expressions that they do not agree with - a fundamental necessity in a democratic society.

However, sometimes emotions do outweigh reason and opposite opinions are viscerally condemned. Many political issues have deteriorated into short-tempered, easily trigged shouting matches - also by our law-makers - or have been taken to the streets in an apparent failure of the democratic institutions instead of a level-headed, fact-based approach. Critical thinking and the tolerance for inconvenient views are skills not necessarily paramount on the things to be taught in school and that lack now is being exposed in the most extreme fashion.

Nevertheless, at one point things can be overwhelming, tiredness and frustration can occur. Especially when things hardly change (like with lèse-majesté) or just simply a general anxiety (something I tried to explain during the flood crisis last year) that this simmering political crisis is always close to boil over again! In these moments, you can't help but take a break or reduce the daily news intake.

P.S: This warning probably comes a little bit too late for us journalists and regular readers to this and similar websites...!

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and also on his public Facebook page here.