Mental Health: You Are Not Alone

Guest-of-Honour Speech at PSALT Care Charity Golf Dinner

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I’m delighted to join you at this dinner. Thank you for your support of PSALT Care’s Inaugural Charity Golf event. For those of you who played, I trust it has been a fruitful afternoon and thank you for your presence and contribution.

I know you are midway through your dinner but could I please invite you to take a mental pause with me by taking three deep breaths? <PAUSE> Only we humans can do volitional or intentional breathing but we don’t do enough of it. Thank you for giving yourself a chance to slow down and be present.

Some of you may know that WORLD Mental Health Day, organised by the World Federation for Mental Health to raise awareness and unite in efforts to improve mental health, was observed two weeks ago on 10 Oct.

We have certainly moved by leaps and bounds in terms of awareness.

Mental health was one of the three themes for leaders attending the World Economic Forum in Davos last year. (The other two themes were technology disruption and climate change.)

Closer to home, Singapore recently hosted the 12th “Together Against Stigma” Global Conference on 3 October, at which President Halimah Yacob stressed that more can be done to fight the stigma of mental health and to provide support for those with invisible mental health issues, especially in schools and in workplaces.

Mental health has pervaded our everyday conversations — whether it be the discourse on this year’s tough questions in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) mathematics paper and the “trauma” inflicted on 12-year-old examination candidates, or the record number of teenage boys who committed suicide last year.

I’m no expert in mental health, but I’m beyond vested in mental health being a national priority. My deep and passionate advocacy on this issue stems from my personal and professional experiences.

  1. My incredibly bright nephew was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, then depression last year. He’s made several attempts to hurt himself and is currently out of the school system at the promising age of 17. He is not alone in his plight. The number of suicides last year among boys aged 10 to 19 was a record high since suicide tracking started in 1991, according to the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) who released the numbers in July.
  2. A team mate at Hush TeaBar has been on treatment for major depression and mild bipolar for years. His employment experience has been patchy because of workplace discrimination until he joined Hush TeaBar. The young man whom I work with at another community project called A Good Space almost jumped off from the 15th floor of a HDB flat when he was just 19. They too, are only examples of a larger trend. According to the Health Promotion Board, the mental wellbeing of working adults in Singapore is 13% lower than the general population. In 2014, studies found that workplace stress is the root cause of 90% of psychological conditions in Singapore.
  3. The elderly is similarly affected by mental health issues. A study by NUS showed that one in five of those aged 75 and above show signs of depression: There’s the old uncle living in my block at Marine Crescent who was depressed from the death of his wife and started sleeping on the bench in the void deck at night. Just the other day, a young taxi driver shared with me about his 87 year old grandfather jumping to his death by climbing up the flower pot racks along his HDB corridor after his breakfast, his whole family was still having their breakfast inside the flat when they heard the loud thud

Then there’s my own close shave with depression 13 years ago when my world collapsed in the most colossal manner when I was left with $16, a broken heart and a broken business. I won’t go into that here but I hope you are curious enough to go grab a copy of my book, 50 Shades of Love or order online at www.50shadesoflove.org. All net proceeds will go towards supporting psychosocial development programmes for refugee children.

In case you are starting to think that I’m the epicentre of mental health issues, ladies and gentlemen, let me absolve myself — not with any delight at all — by sharing some more sobering numbers: The latest IMH study in Dec 2018 showed that one in seven persons in Singapore experience a mental health condition in their lifetime, an upward trend from one in eight just 8 years ago. Globally, this number is one in four persons. Will we head there? Let’s do a dip test. How many of you know someone with mental health conditions?

Two thirds of those with mental health conditions in Singapore do not seek help because of stigma, discrimination and neglect.

Let’s pause for a moment and think of stigma and discrimination. I would like to invite you to think about how you would describe a person with mental health conditions. <PAUSE>

A 2017 Public Attitudes Survey by National Council of Social Service (NCSS) found that 4 in 10 had gross misconceptions and therefore prejudices about persons with mental health conditions. “Lack of discipline and willpower is one of the main causes of mental health issues.” or “Persons with mental health issues should not be given responsibility.” were some of the comments collected during the study.

With the launch of the 5-year Community Mental Health Master in 2017, we are finally moving from an institutional care model to a community care approach for mental health. Primary care providers like polyclinics and GPs are being trained to support mental health services in non-stigmatising environments. Mental health education and promotion programmes are being introduced in schools and workplaces. A nationwide anti-mental health campaign called Beyond the Label was also launched for the first time in Sep 2018 because the social stigma surrounding mental health conditions is a major barrier to people seeking help. Many social service organisations are also given additional support to heighten their efforts. I’m also seeing more social enterprises and groundup efforts founded and started in recent times to address mental health across different segments which is a nod in the right direction that the community is coming together to be part of the solution.

Two preventive areas in mental health are of particular interest to me: youth mental health and workplace/employee wellbeing, which was why I started Hush four years ago. Hush is Singapore’s first silent teabar and a social movement where we empower the Deaf and hard of hearing to bring awareness of self-care and resilience to workplaces and schools. Employees and students learn to sign emotions that encourage inclusion and expression whilst also learning techniques to pause, reconnect with themselves and manage stress. All in silence, with a cup of tea, led by our Deaf facilitators. The other half of our team is made up of persons in recovery from mental health conditions. We just celebrated our 5thr anniversary last Saturday, a miracle I’m so thankful for.

In May last year, I got together with 25 other c-suite leaders from private and public sectors to form the Workwell Leaders Workgroup, a groundup leaders’ initiative to champion workplace and employee wellbeing as a leadership priority. Last year, we rallied 60 employers to raise awareness with events and programmes on World Mental Health Day on 10 Oct 2018, and beyond. This year, we organised our first CEO Breakfast Dialogue just last Thursday that brought 20 CEOs and key leaders from organisations such as Nomura, HSBC, NUS, NUHS, PWC, Dow Chemical, BP, Parkway Pantai and even the Deputy Secretary of Public Service Division to come together to learn and co-create the first multi sector commitment to prioritise employee mental health as a strategic imperative. This is the right thing to do, and the smart thing to do because workplace welbeing directly impacts productivity and innovation.

In my role as a parliamentarian, I am keen to see mental health education be made compulsory as part of public health education. In addition, we must update our employment laws to include psychological and social wellbeing as part of workplace health and safety, beyond just physical health and safety to push and influence employers to have psychosocial support programmes in place, as well as to look at job redesign to create more inclusive workplace and employment practices. I have made many calls in Parliament to make mental health a national and whole-of-government priority because our biggest asset is our people. Poor mental health will cost Singapore our future if our children cannot reach their full potential, especially when their lives end prematurely. The impact of poor mental health on our productivity and innovation is indisputable. Our social cohesion cannot be taken for granted — resilient communities follow from resilient citizens.

I’m grateful everyday for having come out on the bright side of that deep dark slippery slope because of the support system I have in my family and friends. Not everyone has that but everyone deserves that.

So I am delighted that PSALT Care is raising funds with this inaugural charity golf event for Betsy’s Place, which I believe to be Singapore's first mental wellness recovery centre, "a safe and vibrant recovery-centred activity hub where peers can call home". They already have a very kind soul who has offered a corner unit terrace house for this. I’m supporting this cause because I have met many persons-in-recovery who would like a brief respite every now and then, sometimes even from their own homes in their recovery journey. This has shown to be effective in other countries. With Betsy’s Place, we are certainly another step closer towards realising our national vision of a community-based approach to mental health, and not an institutionalised or medicalised one.

I’ve been asked many times how I could bring in mental health with every Bill I speak on in Parliament. Because mental wellbeing is fundamental to living and flourishing as human beings, and is in every crevice of human society. Mental health is a human condition.

Because there is no health, or wealth, without mental health.

Mental illness is not a personal failure. Mental health is a spectrum, a continuum. It’s not ‘I’m ill, or I’m not’. Its not ‘I’m over it, or I’m still in it’. It’s not ‘I got it, I will never get it’.

Because of stigma, because of lack of awareness, because of lack of training, because of lack of resources ……we may think that mental health challenges only affect certain people, some segments of our society. But if we just pause and have an honest conversation with ourselves, we will realise that we are navigating along this spectrum at any point in time, through our life journey.

Because who hasn’t suffered a loss, ever? Who hasn’t had a major life transition, ever? Who hasn’t felt overwhelmed with responsibility for another, ever? Who hasn’t been marginalised in some way, ever? Who hasn’t been made to feel like a failure, ever? Who hasn’t experienced physical then emotional pain, ever?

I hope we can always come back to those times in our own lives when we were challenged mentally and emotionally when we wonder ‘what do I say/do’, or ‘he’s different from me’, or ‘I am scared of her’ with someone who is living with mental health conditions. We have all been there, temporary or protracted. They are just another version of us. Let’s #givemorelove.

I do hope you breathe consciously often and give love to yourself too. I want to take this opportunity to thank PSALT Care for doing the work they do and sincerely invite you to support their work by donating generously through the QR code at your table. Your donation helps create a home. We are given so that we can give, I hope you give generously.

Let me leave you with one of my favourite poems from Emily Dickinson that I think sums up the work that PSALT Care does and perhaps why many of us are here too:

If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain; If I can ease one life the aching, Or cool one pain, Or help one fainting robin Unto his nest again, I shall not live in vain.

Thanks very much for listening. I hope you enjoy the rest of this evening. Be well.

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.

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