By Quek Yoke Ling
In popular American TV series The Big Bang Theory, the main character Sheldon struggles with a debilitating mental health condition called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Things which most people are able to shrug off – an uncompleted tic-tac-toe puzzle, for instance, or the sharing of a bottle – causes him huge, paralysing amounts of distress. To soothe the panic, he immediately performs actions called “compulsions”, such as completing the tic-tac-toe himself – only then, is he able to feel at ease, and move on with his day.
While Sheldon’s story is portrayed in a light-hearted manner and evokes much laughter, mental illness in real life is more than what is shown on TV.
Although not commonly discussed in everyday conversation, mental illnesses (such as depression and anxiety) are genuine conditions that many people struggle with. According to a 2016 Singapore Mental Health Study conducted by IMH, up to 1 in 7 Singaporeans have experienced a form of mental illness in their lifetime. Despite this, individuals with mental health conditions are still stigmatised and perceived in a negative manner – more than 5 in 10 Singaporeans surveyed were not willing to live with, live nearby, or work with a person with a mental health condition.
Launched last year, Beyond The Label is a 5-year education effort organised by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS). It aims to provide the public with a better, more accurate understanding of what mental illness is like, dispelling age-old myths through education and first-hand accounts of those who have struggled to – or are still struggling to – battle the demons that reside within.
Project Weave, on the other hand, aims to bridge the gap between those with mental health conditions and members of the public via recreational activities (e.g. camps). The committee in charge (which comprises of NTU students) has collaborated with various other tertiary institutions, such as NUS and Singapore Polytechnic, to hold events to raise mental health awareness.
While anyone can fall victim to depression or anxiety, academics tend to be a main contributing (or aggravating) factor for young adults such as Kylie and Mia (names have been changed to protect their privacy).
Taiwanese student Kylie, 24, is currently studying in a university in Singapore. Stressed out by academics, and feeling lonely due to the lack of support, she fell into depression when she was in junior college. Although severely depressed at that time, she could not tell anyone about her condition. “I was scared that my friends might leave me because I am weird,” she explains.
Mia, also 24, echoes Kylie’s sentiments. She, too, could not confide in her friends – partially due to the fear of being judged, but more so the possibility of being outcasted or isolated as a result. What these young ladies need – arguably more than anything else – is support, which can manifest itself in many forms.
While verbal support can be useful, sometimes physical support – the mere presence of a friend or family member – can make a significantly positive difference. Having had first-hand experience, Kylie knows this well – her mental health improved significantly when she made the decision to return to her hometown and stay with her parents for a while. The 2 years spent with them there made her happier, and gave her the strength to continue her studies in Singapore.
“I do not really think words of encouragement would make them (people with mental health conditions) happier when they are really struggling with depression or anxiety… but company will definitely be of help,” says Kylie.
What Singapore is doing is not nearly enough – facilities and treatment options aside, there needs to be a stronger support system nationwide, and more people to spread the word that “mental illness” does not equal “crazy”. Mia reckons that efforts can be stepped up, “seeing that many people still feel stereotyped and are uncomfortable with letting people know about their conditions”.
Nevertheless, what is comforting is that campaigns/initiatives such as Beyond The Label and Project Weave are – at the very least – a step in the correct direction. What is crucial, then, is to keep the momentum going by holding more mental health-related events. With greater mental health awareness, it is hoped that society as a whole will become softer and kinder towards those who are in a tough spot.
For those struggling to stay afloat in life, Mia has this to say: “Don’t give up fighting. You are stronger than you think, and more than capable of building a better life for yourself. There will be good days ahead”.