Between Meritocracy and Mental Health Sits Gratitude and Inclusion

Stress, Suicides and One Too Many

On 8 June, I was taking turns sitting with LC, NC and NB — three staff members of Hush TeaBar because they were experiencing ‘breakdown episodes’ — and strangely, all at the same time. [The entire team of Hush is made up of the Deaf and PMHIs (persons with mental health issues) — the 3 are PMHIs.] All three have battled with suicidal thoughts/attempts. On my way home, the news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide popped up on my phone.

I thought of my nephew who was diagnosed with anxiety disorder last year at just 15 and a cousin who has been on treatment for major depression and mild bipolar for years. My own close shave with depression 12 years back when my world collapsed.

The old uncle neighbour who is so depressed from his wife’s death that he started sleeping on the bench in our void deck at night. The young man I work with at A Good Space who almost jumped off from the 15th floor of a HDB flat. Another sought me out after he read about me in Sunday Times because he has been depressed/suicidal and wanted a mentor. The senior director of a British organisation who broke down during a Hush session because she could not find a reason to be grateful to herself as part of the silent tea reflection.

· Teen suicides were reported to be highest in 15 years in 2016 (ST)

· Half of the suicides in 2016 occurred between the ages of 20 and 49. More men than women committed suicide (ST, Apr 2018).

· An NTU Students’ survey in 2015 showed that one in four young Singaporeans (18–25) suffered from multiple symptoms of depression. That same report indicated that IMH treated 600 youths between 20–29 in 2014.

· 90% of psychological conditions have their root cause in workplace stress (ST, 2014)

· 52% of Singapore workers are suffering from burnout (BT, 2016)

· More seniors were reported to be taking their own lives (ST, 2016)

Stress and depression is cross-cutting across all segments of our society. How did we become one of the wealthiest nations in the world yet with so many impoverished in joy and wellbeing?

Meritocracy, Anxiety and Why So Busy

Unlike an aristocracy where one’s status is determined by birth, meritocracy levels the playing field for all so — in theory — there are no limits to what we want to be. The peasant in an aristocracy would not lose sleep over never becoming a noble or owning the land he ploughs on because he never could. But a hawker in this modern meritocracy knows his son is not ‘destined’ to follow in his footsteps and can just as likely be a doctor as the doctor’s son. The disparate social values accorded to a hawker versus a doctor would naturally compell the hawker to do all he can to ‘veer’ his son towards being a doctor. Or the desire to have a big house like the doctor’s because there’s no restriction on him to purchase one. This is a good thing in the name of social mobility and progress yet it also creates what philosopher Alain de Botton calls ‘status anxiety’ which he argues is the cause of the ubiquitous poverty of satisfaction we see in the world today. This innate anxiety is exacerbated by our sense of identity being determined by how others see us. Social media then came along to amplify this externally-centric and comparative way of living.

This anxiety builds a habit of ‘busy’ because this gives us a misguided sense of worth. If you are not frenetic and overwhelmed, you are not productive — and not making the best use of the meritocratic ‘privileges’. Satisfaction with life is thus elusive because we are terrified of dropping the ball, we seldom pause; we seldom recharge. In this life of rush and constantly ‘on’, we are simultaneously overstimulated and bored, enriched and empty, connected yet isolated. This scarcity of satisfaction is vicious because we fill this lack with more work to do, more goals to achieve, more things to buy… until our body gives way, or our mind, or both.

As a coach to business leaders and professionals from different countries, it gives me no satisfaction to know that this problem is not uniquely Singapore. In 2017, The World Health Organisation (WHO) also declared depression as the leading cause of disability worldwide with 300 million people suffering from it. There are 800,000 suicides worldwide every year — and the link to depression is clear.

How is it that we only got half the lesson on meritocracy — that we must strive for the best and most or we will lose out but were never taught to understand what we want versus what we need? Where/when did we learn to focus only on what we don’t have which keeps us on this treadmill of scarcity and anxiety that drives many aground into depression, or even suicide?

Awareness, Gratitude and Let’s Fight On

The father of capitalism, Adam Smith, once said that ‘no society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of its members are poor and miserable’. Or rich and miserable, I should add. Indeed, how can we be happy if so many around us are not?

LC from Hush shared that having depression is “like treading water in the open seas all the time with no shore in sight — and then I finally get so tired that I have to let go and let myself drown because that’s the only way left to go.”

We must make mental health a deafening priority rather than leave it languishing in the shadows. Because for every person who has sought help, there are many who have not and may never because of low awareness, stigma and denial. (A 2009 study by IMH showed that only 31.7% of people with mental illness were found to have sought help.)

The other half of the lesson on meritocracy that was missed in this pursuit of economic wellbeing? I think it’s gratitude and resilience. How different will our lives be if we focus on what we have instead of what we don’t have? When we appreciate what we have, we will have room for more. When we pause and reflect — and be grateful for and learn from the challenges we had, we deposit more into our resilience bank.

LC was affected by Anthony Bourdain’s suicide. His response to me when I checked in with him that weekend was “I wanted to be like him. I nearly couldn’t breathe when I saw the news. Makes me think that someone who has been fighting for so long, in the end he could no longer fight…..” I could only listen and let him know I am here for him.

Yes, they are fighting like LC said (and the others have used the same term too) because they are WARRIORS. Everyone around me whom I see and hear is suffering — and they are — yet they are also so strong because they are battling with their own mind. So let’s see them not by the illness they have but by the strength and courage that they show us through this war they fight every day. And support them by including and celebrating them. Here’s to those who inspire us and don’t even know it.

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Anthea Ong is an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

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