By Catherine Zou (17A01B), Noor Adilah (17S06B), Tapasya S. (17S03C)
Growing up is, in many ways, an opening of the mind.
New knowledge constantly forces apart the closed cocoon of a child’s sensibilities. But while many of us can appreciably point at particular lessons, friends or family members for a lesson on such-and-such, not many can attest to specific incidents where lessons on mental illness have made it past the white noise that surrounds us in daily life. In fact, most of the stimulus we gain from the external world about mental health are often inaccurate and internalising this information has perpetuated stigma surrounding the issue.
In a way, by being exposed to more inaccurate information, we further cocoon ourselves into a comfortable state of ignorance that is hard to penetrate, unknowingly retreating back into a narrow cage of limited knowledge. In fact, it takes a great deal of effort to constantly reinform ourselves about what mental health actually is and to re-educate ourselves to overcome the misconceptions we have internalised.
The reality, however, is that many will remain untouched by mental illness in their lives, while many others surrounding us, loved ones and acquaintances alike, may struggle with an invisible illness that most have a nebulous and vague understanding of. The silence, shame and stigma that surrounds the issue of mental illness, mental health and mental disorders further perpetuates this hidden problem that has had profound and far-reaching implications on all of us.
Such was the context that framed Peer Helpers Programme’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which provided a collection of materials and information on the mental illnesses that afflict those around us. Each day in the week focused on a particular kind of mental illness, disorder, or aspect of mental health. Of all its initiatives, the informative boards on mental illness put up in the canteen were most striking. This was in no small part due to its focus on dispelling myths surrounding mental illnesses.
It was also striking and important to understand that the Peer Helpers themselves are passionate members of the school population who want to start this conversation about mental health and spread the message that mental health is not something to keep mum about, but something that everyone should involve themselves in. Having these Rafflesians to advocate about this cause, instead of the counsellors themselves or external bodies, shows that this dialogue is needed and important within the Rafflesian community.
Anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders, personality disorders and depression are just some of the many mental illnesses that have achieved mainstream awareness due to increased media coverage. The boards around the canteen used this as a springboard to clarify our understanding of what these illnesses are and are not. The boards, paired with the short video documentary Hollywood and Stigma that aired in the canteen, were able to address the perpetuated stereotypes and expose the truths behind these mental illnesses and disorders.
Another board created by the MIND Your Words group addressed specifically the practice of misappropriating the medical terms for mental illnesses as daily figures of speech, such as equating repeated behaviours like cleaning with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Such misappropriation is not just a colloquial irregularity, but has become inescapable in dialogue – and it has a devastating effect on the public perception of mental illnesses. Not only does it trivialize the struggles faced by people battling them, it also perpetuates myths and misunderstandings. While an information board alone can hardly be expected to solve the issue, it is certainly impactful in making people more aware of their habits, and hopefully more receptive towards making conscious changes when referring to mental illnesses, rather than viewing criticisms as purely pedantic.
Next to this board was a display that expanded upon the theme of triggers, which have become a highly talked about mental health issue that has gained a level of undesirable notoriety, especially in the internet community. Flippant and careless usage of the term has distracted from its actual meaning – an external event or thing that cause an involuntary memory of a traumatic accident – causing an uncomfortable and undesirable reaction in the person. Next to the board, clips from movies and television shows that accurately represented triggers were shown, such as scenes from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Steven Universe.
Other boards were coupled with a comprehensive set of brochures and bookmarks free for all to take. The stigma attached to mental illnesses not only prevents a large proportion of people struggling with them from coming forward to seek help, it also prevents family and friends from addressing the issue due to a fear of embarrassment or offence. This initiative attempted to normalise mental illnesses, shedding light on their ubiquity in society. Awareness is a process of learning, and perhaps learning more about helping oneself and others is the first step in creating a community of people who are more willing to reach out and help.
One of the more hilarious, but still largely important initiatives, the Sleep Clinic, provided students the right environment to take a nap in and replenish the late hours spent mugging or finishing up PW. The establishment of the MyWorkspace room as the official area for Peer Helping was also a refreshing take on a barely used part of the school.
These efforts were, as with any schoolwide initiative, often limited by the mediums and resources available to us. The videos, boards and posters are classic outreach measures of any activity clamoring for attention. For some, it ends up once more as white noise.
Weeklong awareness initiatives cannot do all the work for us. Some initiatives are blips in our radar, or a momentary, fleeting thought. And this is not a bad thing — it is neither a failure of the initiative, nor a personal failing.
Awareness is ultimately about how to help ourselves, or to better support others. In this, MHAW has established a presence, and a realisation of the support systems in place. And if the 500 anti-anxiety packs given out this week are any indication, the initiative has reached many.
The campaign may not have lead to an instant change in our perspective or our behaviours, but it is a timely reminder of the support available to us, or of the sensitivity we can show. It helps us to grow up. And in the final dash towards promos and prelims, and given the current climate of mental health in our school, it serves us well to have this reminder. To have a place for discussion about this issue that society is reluctant to address, no matter how impermanent, can make all the difference for a community as tightly knit and interdependent as ours.