RSS Mental Health Strand 2021

By Elizabeth Paulyn Gostelow (21A01B) and Max Chwa (21A01B)

One thing’s clear: everyone needs a breather from JC life.  

The pandemic’s impact extends far beyond the physical realm. How many more online classes, cancelled CCA sessions and shortened MEP curriculums can one student take? The lack of social interaction in our schedules has undoubtedly had detrimental effects on our mental health. Avenues for relieving stress—from movie watch parties at the Shaw Foundation Library to visiting My Rest Space (MRS)—have been closed off, leaving Rafflesians with a sense of choicelessness and entrapment.   

But enough of bemoaning such downers. The Raffles Science Symposium’s Mental Health Strand is here to help students grapple with these issues!

Talk by Dr. Christopher Willard, Psychologist and Author, Teaching at Harvard Medical School

A few minutes into the talk, Dr Willard instructed us to close our eyes and raise our hands before our chests. “How do you feel? How does your breath feel?” he asked. 

While it was easy enough to follow his instructions, shifting our focus to our own bodies was actually quite difficult. Many attendees seemed to find the activity pointless or silly, while others couldn’t stop themselves from fidgeting with discomfort. This activity highlighted the main point of Dr Willard’s talk: addressing students’ skepticism towards mindfulness.

As it turns out, mindfulness isn’t as mystical as it appears to be. The practice itself is backed by science and can reduce stress and help us relax. According to Dr Willard, the benefits of mindfulness are all the more important in the present due to the pressure that many students face. 

Fostering such practices is key as humans have not evolved to deal with the type of stress we experience today, let alone the amount of stress that receiving Timed Practice and Project Work results at the same time creates. Human brains still retain many of the same impulses that cavepeople possessed (as many teachers have undoubtedly observed in their students), leading to misguided reactions to stress. Our bodies often react physically to stress, giving us feelings of adrenaline and eliciting the fight-or-flight response. However, the stress we face due to upcoming deadlines or falling grades should be addressed calmly and not in a panicked way, as our instincts compel us to do. This is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness helps us develop proper reactions to stress by ensuring that we face challenges while feeling calm and grounded, allowing us to solve problems rationally. 

Thankfully, mindfulness can have tangible and lasting effects. Neuroplasticity enables us to reorganise our neural networks, allowing new mental health habits to take root. Through mindfulness, we can create new neural networks, changing the way our brains react to stress. In the words of Dr Willard: “One thing about mental health is that it gets better.” 

Talk by Mr Kevin Wee, founder of Rebound with Resilience

Mr Wee began with a poignant memory from his primary school days: It was PSLE results day, and his brother’s friend was not celebrating alongside his peers, but alone in the school bathroom declaring his life to be over. Mr Wee still remembered the dismal scene—a once cheery figure huddled up into himself, falling apart over a piece of paper. 

The competitiveness of junior college life made him wish to stand out in ways other than academics. As such, he branded himself on becoming a class clown, and went as far as to eat hydrilla plants during a biology lab session to live up to his brand. However, this lighthearted clownery evolved into a more serious sharing of the stress he faced as A-Levels drew near. Even when the dreaded exams ended, Mr Wee’s mental state continued to spiral.

However, recovery from his bleak experiences led Mr Wee to mentor others about mental health. He acknowledged the difficulty of individual recovery and advised us to get rid of stigmatised attitudes towards seeking professional help.

He gave us one overarching piece of advice: never underestimate the power of hope, even when it is at its faintest. “Cling onto it with everything you have. One day, you’ll appreciate and understand why you had to go through it.” 

Talk by Dr Heng Lim on sports psychology

Next up was Dr Heng Lim’s talk on sports and mental wellness. Starting off with the theme of motivation. Dr Lim brought up the inspirational story of Joseph Schooling beating his own hero Michael Phelps in the 2016 Olympics. 

On this note of inspiration, Dr Lim introduced us to the SMART acronym, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely—just a few guidelines when one wants to set effective goals. There are also different types of goals, such as short, mid and long term ones. A few tips he shared were to break down and revise goals, giving yourself chances to review and reflect.

In one’s pursuit of their goal, it is important to see growth and prevent motivation burnout. As such, performance profiling theory is a great way to achieve this. The theory puts the athlete in control through a performance profile, which analyzes their strengths and weaknesses. This increases the intrinsic motivation of athletes to improve. 

Student Presentations

Afterwards, the Peer Helpers continued with group presentations. Each group explained the significance of their project, described ways to address certain mental health issues, and received questions from the Zoom audience. The passion every group had for their projects was evident, with many presentations involving innovative visual designs or even artwork by the members of each group.

A poster produced by Team Perfekct for their research project on perfectionism.

Many groups seemed to speak from personal experience, whether they were discussing perfectionism, anxiety, or unhealthy relationships with one’s parents. As such, a unique sense of warmth and sincerity emanated from the different presentations.

There was one particular group that stood out—instead of creating posters and leaflets, they created a short film for the SMHFF Short Film Youth Competition! Unfortunately, due to competition guidelines, they were unable to screen the actual film. However, they showed attendees behind-the-scenes footage which revealed  the massive workload involved in the film-making process. This allowed the audience a glimpse of the immense effort Peer Helpers invested in each of their projects.

Talk by Elizabeth Paulyn Gostelow on her personal scoliosis recovery journey

By the time Elizabeth’s presentation began, the atmosphere was already restless. Hours of talks and speeches had taken a toll on the audience’s attention span. Many students were having muffled conversations with each other, already yearning to go home. 

Elizabeth’s talk changed all that. As Elizabeth showed us pictures of herself before treatment, the abstract idea of scoliosis became more and more tangible. The clothing she wore to hide her back brace, her avoidance of group photos—all of this illustrated the body image issues Elizabeth had due to back bracing. While her experiences might seem grim, Elizabeth recounted them with humour and confidence, firmly establishing herself as the writer of her own narrative.

Taking up her book copy from a table, she then shared with the audience her motivations for writing Embrace. She was touched by the honesty of a book written by an RI senior Huang Huanyan named Brave Girl Not Eating, which chronicles the author’s journey with anorexia. Elizabeth hopes that by sharing her own recovery story, Embrace helps others be more vocal about their recovery journeys.

A few coping strategies she outlined were journaling and doodling, which she shared aided her in consolidating her post surgery experiences. In the same vein, she noted the thought-behaviour-emotion-sensation bubble writing exercise was just as useful.

She also included a small section of advice on post-surgery home adjustments, such as firm mattress, chairs and grab bars to help a scoliosis patient navigate around the house safely and comfortably.

Pages from ‘Embrace’ showing post-surgery home adjustments.

For those who were wondering about what they could do for those with scoliosis, Elizabeth highlighted caregiver burnout as a real issue to avoid and the importance of choosing appropriate words when commenting on a scoliosis patient’s physical appearance.

“With loved ones to support you and a deepening self awareness over time, you will find the grit and hope to press on in your journey of personal growth,” she assured the audience.

There is a tendency to frame the experiences of those who have overcome great odds as either pitiful or inspirational. While benign in intention, both types of coverage alienate us from these individuals, ensuring that they’re either denigrated or over-idealised. Through Elizabeth’s authenticity, it became clear that in spite of her struggles with scoliosis, Elizabeth is just like any one of us—a little insecure, but full of life and personality.

Final Words 

RI is often perceived as a hyper-competitive environment full of rabid students doing anything they can to claw their way to the top. However, through the RSS Mental Health Strand, another side of our beloved school was revealed, a side that believes in the importance of supporting one another and uplifting those around us. Amidst the neverending hustle of TPs and CTs, PHP and the RGC serve as a reminder that we should all take a few moments to focus on how we feel. Sit up straight. Close your eyes. Breathe.

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