By Nicki Chan (18S03C), Abigail Ang (18S06B) and Elizabeth Leong (18S06G)
Photos courtesy of Raffles Photographic Society
With a prominent focus on personal sharings and stories, this year’s Raffles Science Symposium (RSS) Mental Health Strand offered not only information about the important issue at hand, but also a message of hope for those struggling with their own mental wellbeing.
Senior Deputy Principal Mr Magendiran delivered his opening address to a crowd that included 40 external guests. He remarked on the importance of good mental health and the discourse surrounding it, reminding participants that “the conversation is not about or with the experts alone, but also about young people like you”. He concluded by expressing his wish that everyone would “learn things [today] that will bear fruit later in your lives”.
Talk by Dr. Habeebul Rahman, Senior Consultant, Psychological Medicine Department, Tan Tock Seng Hospital
In Dr. Habeebul’s introduction, he called the audience to action: “if, after today, you can be brave enough to help yourself or others, that is good enough”. During his interview with Press, he reiterated this stance: “beyond [mere awareness], you need to make the decision to do something about it”.
He subsequently addressed the misinformed belief that mental illness was a choice: “mental illnesses are no different [from physical ones]”. The audience learned how this understanding of mental health impacted how he treated patients. “Now, I don’t ask if [a person has a family history of mental illness], but what their family history is.” Our genetic makeup affects our likelihood of suffering from physical disorders; this holds true for mental illnesses as well.
Dr. Habeebul then provided easily-understood descriptions of the various causes of mental illness. For instance, when explaining psychosis, he first talked about a common phenomenon – dreaming, through which humans draw connections between memories. The delusions common in psychosis, he explained, were what happened when “our ability to draw these connections go wrong. Those with psychosis are constantly in a dreamlike state”.
Dr. Habeebul was also quick to dispel other myths regarding mental illnesses – for example, when discussing eating disorders (ED), he pointed out that they also affect men, despite women being the vast majority of patients. He also verbalised his respect for those with mental illnesses, commenting that “it takes a huge amount of strength to walk away from the behaviours associated with such illnesses”.
On the role of medication in resolving mental illnesses, Dr Habeebul remarked that it was important in “reversing some of the processes in your brain, long enough for other intervention methods like therapy and social support”.
He later described the intervention methods that the average person can take. “Be a friend. Reach out to them as a person. Do not address [their behaviours] as a deficiency or judge them as bad. All of these things, they’ve already gone through in their mind. Instead, highlight your concern for them: ‘I’m worried that if things don’t change I would lose a good friend. Would you come with me to get some help?’”
Dr. Habeebul admitted that it would be a difficult situation should the friend refuse to seek help, although he said he “would err on the side of saving them and then work to repair the relationship later on.” He added that if one was unsure of what to do, one should “seek out someone who will give you advice”, such as a guidance counsellor.
Sharing by Mr Vijay Pratap Rai, Peer Support Specialist (PSS) in the IMH’s Early Psychosis Intervention Programme (EPIP)
Mr Rai’s talk focused on his recovery from psychosis, and his current vocation as a Peer Support Specialist.
In a world where seeking treatment for mental illnesses is still stigmatised, hearing Mr Rai talk openly about this matter was encouraging. He described the effects of his illness, from the “physical zapping sensations” that he felt, to his paranoia. “I felt like I was under surveillance. That people could read my mind and emotions, and that they were broadcasting them to the world,” he said. He also detailed his journey to recovery, speaking highly of his prescribed medications and of the social support activities he participated in (such as current affairs classes), and talking about his self-care plans in the event of a relapse.
Having made significant improvements in his mental health, Mr Rai’s case managers felt that he was qualified to start giving peer support. Though initially skeptical of his ability to help others, Mr Rai agreed to attend the peer support training programmes by the Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH). He even went abroad to learn about different mental healthcare systems. Peer support eventually became his vocation; Mr Rai now facilitates peer support sessions for other mental health patients, and is proud of his work.
When asked, in an interview with Press, about the reasons he chose to speak out about his illness, his passion for his role as a peer supporter was evident: “At first, I started sharing my story through a fake name. I realised it was helping people – I was getting good feedback. That’s when I became vocal and more public. I was lucky – I received help that worked for me – so now I want to support those in the shadows.”
Mr Rai concluded his talk with life lessons he learned from dealing with his mental illness, such as the importance of shifting one’s perceptions to deal with situations better, and the concept of inner strength. He reinforced this notion in his interview, telling Press that “the important thing to note is that recovery is possible and is the expectation. No matter how challenging, recovery is possible.”
“No matter how challenging, recovery is possible.”
– Mr Vijay Pratap Rai, Peer Support Specialist
Mr Ling Shao Tong, SMU Peer Helpers
Even before joining the Peer Helpers Programme (PHP) at Singapore Management University (SMU), Mr Ling was no stranger to mental illness. During his presentation, Mr Ling recounted his experiences supporting multiple friends through their mental health issues, beginning with trying to help a friend with suicidal depression in Secondary Two.
His sharing gave us a deep insight into the problems faced by those often forgotten when we discuss mental health: the friends and family supporting those with mental illness. A month after he joined PHP at SMU, his best friend took his own life. Mr Ling described the following period as “an immensely terrible time” for him, where he was often plagued by guilt for not having “done more”.
Warning the audience against having a “saviour’s complex” like he did in the past, he reminded us to “not take personal responsibility each time our friends go into the low” and to take care of our personal wellbeing while caring for our friends.
Recounting a period of time when he was overwhelmed by trying to be there for his friends “24/7” – like “SOS (Samaritans of Singapore)”, he joked – Mr Ling also brought up a common problem faced by friends and caregivers: burnout.
Though he wanted to always be there for his friends, which included picking up calls at all hours of the night, he realised that it was important to “take care of yourself the way you take care of your friends”, and take time off to rest by doing things he enjoyed.
“Take care of yourself the way you take care of your friends.”
– Mr Ling Shao Tong, SMU Peer Helpers
Nicole Kay, Founder of The Tapestry Project SG
After years of battling depression, both alone and with healthcare professionals who did not take her seriously, Ms Nicole Kay was resolute. No longer would she remain silent about the illness that had taken so much out of her, and no longer should others have to battle the illness for as long as she did. And thus, the Tapestry Project was born, aiming to banish the social stigma surrounding mental illness by encouraging the sharing of personal stories.
Ms Kay shared that it takes approximately 4 to 6 years for people to seek help regarding their mental health. The reason behind this is simple: social stigma keeps people quiet about their experiences. The danger lies in how easily stigma can become convoluted with one’s identity when societal labels are internalised. This affects both the individual and a whole community of mental health patients. Those under the burden of stigma suffer from feelings of shame and isolation. More importantly, the lack of first-hand accounts of mental illnesses affects research that can aid others’ recovery.
Nicole’s experience with depression allowed her to empathise with those who are also struggling, and establish a platform through which real people can share their struggles with an open and accepting community. She hopes that Tapestry can help to connect, empower and educate people so as to foster a sense of courage and community in journeying towards recovery.
Peer Helper S. Jivaganesh (18S06D) presented his project on social anxiety and the use of electronic devices and social media. His research delved into the effects of online bullying, sleep deprivation and use of social media, which he found does not confer as much satisfaction as one would expect. In a survey he conducted amongst JC students, 32.7% of respondents reported experiencing negative emotions after spending time on social media.
Meanwhile, Peer Helper Huang Huanyan’s (18A03A) presentation, “Brave Girl Not Eating” focused on her personal experience with anorexia nervosa, which she was diagnosed with in 2014. Her journey was anything but easy – she relapsed after receiving outpatient treatment, influenced by Instagram accounts that glorified counting calories and eating minuscule amounts of food, and eventually had to be admitted to hospital. Huanyan admitted that “in a sick way”, she enjoyed the attention she was given when others commented on her low food intake and thin frame.
Two significant things that helped Huanyan through her recovery in hospital was art and journaling, both of which she found therapeutic and eventually took up as a hobby. Over the school holidays, she made the decision to reach out to others through her art, inspiring her final product – a graphic novel, which the presentation itself was named after. In her novel, Huanyan describes the causes and symptoms of eating disorders, and the steps that helped her towards recovery. She also explains that the stigma against mental illnesses made her “adamant” against sharing her story against the past, but the experience made her determined to speak out if it would bring joy to those struggling.
“No one deserves to be judged just because they had been through such struggles.”
– Huang Huanyan, Brave Girl Not Eating
Ironically, social media also helped Huanyan through her recovery journey, through support groups for people with eating disorders and posts about recovery from anorexia. It has also encouraged her to share her story. “When I first started posting positive things on Instagram, it helped a lot and a lot of people approached me to tell me my story was inspiring.” Huanyan shared with us. “If I share my story it will help others who are going through the same thing. There is the idea that it’s impossible to recover. But sharing [my] success journey helps people to see that it’s possible.”
The Mental Health Strand would not be complete without showcasing the efforts of RI’s Peer Helpers. A number of poster displays were set up at the ISH, each designed by a group of Peer Helpers to banish misconceptions and educate visitors on various aspects of mental health. One group of Peer Helpers conducted a Kahoot! quiz in conjunction with their exhibit, engaging the passing visitors. Many visitors were seen chatting with the Peer Helpers about the posters, and leaving the ISH with freebies from the exhibition. It was clear that the exhibition was highly interesting to many.
The Role of RSS
The Mental Health Science Strand of this year’s RSS had a full-day programme from 8.15a.m. to 2.30p.m., and filled around three quarters of the Innovation Centre. However, many Year 6s were not aware that this event was occuring, apart from noticing their classmates from PHP were missing from lessons. One may question why this event was only open to Year 5s, when it might help raise awareness and foster discussion for mental health among Year 6s too, given that mental health is an important issue for all students and should transcend one’s academic competence.
Still, the increased attendance in this second year of the Mental Health Strand compared to last year – “about four times bigger”, according to Mr Gary Koh, guidance counselor at Raffles Guidance Centre (RGC) – was heartening to see. Ms Woo Mei Hui, another RGC counselor, attributed this to better organisation, as last year had been more of a “pilot run”.
Even so, Mr Koh says that it is not all about the attendance. “Even if a quarter of the number of people here left with, ‘So this is something I can use and apply to help my friends’, I think we would have been successful [in holding this event].”
The RSS Mental Health Strand was well-run, interesting, and informative, with its participants learning much over the course of less than seven hours. In the face of persistent stigma around the topic, changing people’s attitudes towards mental health will be a slow process. Still, the Strand was a step in the right direction; with time, society will hopefully be receptive to the the future it promotes.