RSS Mental Health Strand 2019

By Wong Zi Yang (19A01D)

Photos courtesy of the Raffles Photographic Society

The Raffles Science Symposium Mental Health Strand is back and into its third year, and its focus? You. The theme for this year’s series of mental health talks is ‘Mind-Body Disconnect’, with the Mental Health Strand placing more emphasis on the correlation between physical and mental health. With a total of three external speakers, the event promised to be more prolific than its two predecessors. The event began with an opening address by Mr Magendiran; at least, it was meant to. Although he was originally positioned to deliver the opening address, the event began immediately with Ms Woo Mei Hui from the Raffles Guidance Centre introducing the first speaker, Mr Michael Chee instead. “That’s what happens when you don’t get enough sleep,” Ms Woo laughed, which proved to be an apt if ironic segue to the first topic of discussion.

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Ms Woo delivers the opening address

Mr Magdalene then gave a short address on the main topic of this year’s mental health strand: that taking care of ourselves is a vital step to maintaining mental health, and expressed his hope that our takeaways from this event would not be merely intellectual but also action-oriented.

Keynote lecture by Mr Michael Chee — Sleep and Well-being: Why it Matters

Most of us naturally strive to be the best we can be. In pursuit of this goal, training is needed, be it in the form of CCA trainings or studying sessions; regardless, the end result is that it saps away just about most of our time and energy. And for training to give optimal results, as Mr Chee explained, sleep is a crucial ingredient to success.

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Mr Chee explains the importance of taking naps

Even in adults, the lack of sleep can increase the risk factor of diabetes, heart attacks, mental illness, dementia, and, in the worst case, death. Mr Chee’s research as a professor of Cognitive Neuroscience also found that people who lack sleep had longer reaction times, more negative thoughts, and worse memory encoding as compared to those who did not. People who take naps that last around an hour also do better academically as compared to those who do not.

“We wouldn’t voluntarily deny ourselves food, because we recognise that it’s essential… but a lot of adolescents, they don’t get the required 8 to 10 hours of sleep daily.” (Mr Michael Chee)

However, not all of us can make the time to sleep 8 to 10 hours a day, though, and Mr Chee acknowledged that 7 hours of sleep is marginally acceptable and that we should at least strive towards that.  He rounded off with some final advice to correct sleep habits: avoiding the use of mobile phones and caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea, Red Bull, and Coca Cola before bed. Changing such deeply-ingrained habits may be daunting, but as Mr Chee explains, “We always have a choice [to change our habits]. It’s just a matter of whether we take that choice or not, taking that first step will make a big difference.”

Brave Girl Not Eating by Ms Huang Huanyan (18A03A)

Having spoken at the RSS mental health strand last year, Ms Huang Huanyan made an appearance this year as well, now with 11 talks’ worth of experience under her belt. She introduced her book, Brave Girl Not Eating, taking us through a journey of anorexia nervosa, and ways to cope and help a friend with a mental illness.

‘In Asian culture, there’s a very strong stigma [surrounding] mental health, that those who don’t get better aren’t strong enough. I’m sharing my journey to help those like me who try to keep it a secret.’ (Ms Huang Huanyan, 18A03A)

While the prototype of the book was an art journal she kept while hospitalised, Ms Huang made the decision to use her book at reach out; “to help those who want to be helped, and help those who want to help”. She shared that it is important as a source of support for your friend to tap on a counsellor’s professional help, especially if it is affecting their social life and health. “I really hated my friends for telling the counsellor without telling me, but after that I was really grateful to them,” she laughed.

Introspection is important, she reflected in the end, and suggested thinking of 3 things we are grateful for each day, to recall the good things in times of depression to prevent negative reinforcement.

Lecture by Dr Tang Kong Choon: When the Going Gets Tough

Look up, look ahead, look around, look back. These four maxims formed the core of Dr Tang’s speech on how to act in the face of stress.

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Dr Tang sharing the story of Mr Jason Chee

He shared the story of someone he knew in the navy —  Mr Jason Chee, who’d lost both his legs, his dominant left arm, and a few fingers in a terrible accident. Yet, he said: “my goal is to walk again in 12 months”. And that he did. Mr Chee would end up returning to work in just 18 months and even win two gold medals for table tennis in the 2013 ASEAN Paralympic games.

“He didn’t focus on what he couldn’t do, but rather [on] what he could. That’s my message to you: Look up, and look ahead.” (Dr Tang Kong Choon)

Some might find the prospect of facing such a setback by themselves daunting. To overcome that, Dr Tang suggested that one need only  “look around” — he espoused the importance of community support, recalling his experience during field camp in the army: they had to carry a simulated casualty across 8km. “You’d be surprised how effective encouragement is — it [really] helped to rally everyone together.”

Finally, he shared a video of his experience in Diving School in America; while diving in the pool strapped to an oxygen tank, the instructor would sabotage the divers in various scary ways, for the real test was to not panic under duress and to troubleshoot the problem with a clear head. “I [still] get shivers when I see this video because I can’t believe I got through [that],” he shared. But the final takeaway he had was that such experiences can be valuable lessons for personal growth that one could look back on in the future when the going gets tough.

In short: when the going gets tough, “look up, look ahead, look around and look back.”

Presentation by Dai Xiang Rong (19S06O) and Goh Yu Yang (19S03M): Effects of Phubbing and How We Should Respond

The next segment was one that hit a little closer to home for everyone — ‘phubbing’, or the usage of phones during meals or in other social contexts (‘phubbing’ is formed by blending ‘phone’ and ‘snubbing’). We all do it, but did you know that its effects are closely related to ostracization? That’s what Dai Xiang Rong and Goh Yu Yang’s social experiment found out, anyway.

To find out the effects of phubbing among our age group, both invited friends to play a board game with them, but phubbed them while playing. A questionnaire issued later revealed that the phubbed participants felt excluded and that their psychological needs were being threatened, as well as general feelings of sadness.

Xiang Rong and Goh Yu also speculated on what some of the factors contributing to this phenomenon could be, with one possibility being that phubbing occurs because of a high addiction to the Internet, and the fear of missing out on events happening elsewhere on social media (also known as ‘FoMO’). People then come to perceive phubbing as normative behaviour and more follow suit as a result, creating a vicious cycle.

Now that we know it’s a problem, what can we do about it? Xiang Rong and Yu Yang suggest a fun game: while out for a meal with friends, everyone must stack their phones in the centre of the the table. Whoever reaches out for their phone first must cover the cost of the entire group’s meals. If you’re not willing to sacrifice your wallet though, they suggest creating a habit loop instead. In essence, it involves conditioning yourself to put away your phone when exposed to a simple trigger, such as someone staring at you. You can then ‘reward’ yourself for putting away your phone, or simply track your progress somewhere so that you can feel accomplished.

Nicholas Patrick: 3 Things that Helped Me Recover from Depression

The penultimate segment of the event was a talk by Mr Nicholas Patrick on his journey of recovering from depression. Mr Patrick explained that three main things helped him recover from depression.

The first was setting his own timeline for recovery (which can differ from person to person), and not letting others rush it due to their own perceptions of depression, as the external pressure for quicker results may only aggravate the sufferer and induce a relapse.

The second was to change one’s environment to one with fewer distracting elements — improving one’s quality of life is part of the process of recovering from depression, after all. He explained, “a monk could meditate in Orchard Road and tune out everything [with some effort], but instead he chooses a secluded mountain to avoid distraction. It’s the same [principle].”

Finally, be comfortable with going back to 0. The road to recovery is never linear, and alternating between great cycles of progress and regress is very common among depression sufferers. The final takeaway Mr Patrick urged participants to keep in mind, when going from a high point to a low point, was to learn how to climb back up to that high point once more (at your own pace, of course), and not to fear sliding down so long as you have the potential to keep climbing higher.

Panel Discussion

The event culminated with a panel discussion with Mr Patrick and Ms Huang, on the topic of “How do we move beyond raising awareness about mental health to actually seeing changes in society and people?”

Both speakers acknowledged that while there is increasing acceptance, change remains rather slow and society is a long way from a genuine understanding of our own and others’ mental health; Mr Patrick opined that “it may take a lifetime before something truly monumental happens [to shift public opinion]”.

The discussion also touched on improvements in workplace discrimination, which was of key concern to more pragmatic-minded individuals; while there may be “employers who are uneducated about mental illness, most aren’t like that,” assured Ms Huang.

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Mr Patrick and Ms Huang at the front of the panel

The one individual action that we can all undertake, Mr Patrick advised, is to help normalise depression. Telling people about it (in his words, “very matter-of-factly”) and being honest and open about the condition will help greatly — even people with depression will have to speak up to contribute to the conversation. He cautioned however, that before we broach the topic of mental illness with anyone, we should probably get to know them well enough first. “Especially if you know they have issues, don’t approach the topic until you know their triggers,” Ms Huang warned. But don’t worry about reporting them to the counsellor: “after treatment, they are usually more grateful than hateful for those who helped them, even if they don’t say it,” Ms Huang affirmed.

Final words

We all have the agency and ability to do something about mental health, starting with ourselves. Taking care of our bodies is a vital step to maintaining our mental health, and once we achieve that, we ought to look toward how we can help our friends — with the goal being to have a community of friends that you support and receive support from at the same time.

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