Updated: Jan 23
Author: Sandra Lam (Pseudonym)*
Passing the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) as a child, I always wondered what was going on inside in the concrete and fenced up buildings. Situated near the heartlands of Hougang, IMH stuck out oddly as an isolated building that stood in the middle of an empty field. I remember asking my parents what that building was for and often, the responses I received are along the lines of “Crazy people go there lah. They are incapable of handling their own lives so they become like this lor”. This sent a clear signal that my parents believed that mental health issues were very much an individualised problem owed to the person’s own fault and one ought to be ashamed for experiencing mental health distresses. As a result, mental health became something that is rarely talked about in my family as it was an issue that was not very welcomed as a conversation topic and also something that I rarely paid attention to. My own understanding of mental health was thus limited to these rather stigmatised conversations and media portrayals.
It wasn’t until when I did an internship with a youth development organization, which broadened my understanding of what mental health was. It showed me that mental health was more than the medical terminologies – depression and anxiety - that identified symptoms but mental health is relevant to every single individual. This experience kickstarted my journey of mental health education as I went on to participate in focus group discussions on mental health. Through experiences of participants who have experienced first-hand mental health challenges, I realised that the media’s portrayal of mental health issues hid the contextual environment that individuals are situated in. Not only does this lead to individualisation of mental health issues (like what my parents believed in), it also misconstrues how we interact with these individuals who are actually, very much the same as us. This revelation broke down the barriers for me to understand that mental health issues are not just something that ought to be shunned, but it was something that we as a society, needed to learn to learn about.
Upon entering university, I was fortunate to be enrolled in Athel’s class – Sociology of Mental Health. This was one of the most impactful classes I have taken even to date as it taught me practical handles about mental health. Though it was situated in an academic context, the opportunity to learn more about mental health provided me with the opportunity to be more self-aware about my wellbeing and also some practical handles that allowed me to offer help to my community. By being able to break down possible sources of stress and finding ways to alleviate them, mental health education showed itself to be extremely useful in any given context. A friend that I often studied together with kept saying that she felt extremely cold and would have difficulty breathing whenever she had to write her essays but she could not identify what was wrong. After some probing, we realised that she was experiencing anxiety and episodes of panic attacks due to academic stress. Owed to what I learnt in class about the possibility of physical manifestations of psychological distresses (known as somatization), I felt like I was placed in a position to render help to make sense of what she was going through. The identification of a possible mental health issue led her to eventually consult a psychiatrist for professional help. Although mental health education may seem frivolous since one might still not be able to offer concrete help, but it goes a long way to directing someone else to seek help. This is just one of the few instances that have shown me the importance of mental health literacy.
Mental health education is something that I never knew I needed until I was met with a situation that called for it. Through my experiences with mental health education, I have come to appreciate the importance of having an informed perspective on mental wellbeing. Even though one might still be able to function productively despite mental health challenges, we actually compromise on our quality of life when we ignore our mental wellbeing. Ultimately, mental health education is not only relevant to counsellors, psychiatrists, or psychologists. It is even more relevant in today’s society where we see an increasing number of people who are going through mental health struggles but are either unaware of them or do not know where to seek help.