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A Quiet Place: Mental Health And The Fashion Industry

For all of fashion’s finery and glamour, mental health isn’t something that it’s nailed going by the luminaries it has claimed (this year marks the 10th anniversary of Alexander McQueen’s tragic suicide). The stress and burnout that come with the industry’s cut-throat pace for ideas, merchandise and content mean that those working in it are 25 per cent more likely than others to experience some sort of mental illness, according to reports. The good news: conversation about it has been rousing in recent years, especially within the creative community. In the first of a two-part interview, five Singapore women from various disciplines who have been vocal about the cause to share more about what you need to know, erase and do next about mental wellness.

The Creatives

On their own mental health struggles and how they deal with them

Narelle Kheng (NK): “Depression feels very rocky because you’re constantly being thrown into different states of mind and you don’t always have a good grasp on what is reality. Your mind puts out false narratives so you’re constantly having to restructure and it’s very tiring. To deal with it, you first have to admit that there’s a problem. Once you can do that, spend a lot of time trying to understand the underlying issues. For me, I find journaling and being very attentive to your own mental state helpful. I was reading a lot on psychology and philosophy, and trying to find any sense of structure that made sense to me. Being able to have open conversations with trusted friends also really helps.”

Sarah Naeem (SN): “I grew up with rather serious body image concerns. I had anorexia; was bulimic for a period and then went the opposite extreme and became very fitness-conscious. If I didn’t go to the gym for two hours, six days a week, I’d beat myself up about it… Your sense of self-worth should not come from the way you look, but for a lot of women, body image is the only way we know how to derive it. I also began to grapple with anxiety in my early 20s (she’s 28) and was diagnosed with depression some time back… Therapy has been really helpful. Now I’ve got a much better handle on my anxiety. I know what I need to do for myself and can recognise what I’m feeling and where it’s coming from. That comes with a lot of self- work, journaling and talking to friends who are more self-aware and getting them to help re-contextualise things in a way that might not have occurred to me. It also helps to realise that managing mental health is a long and constant journey.”

Rachel Pang (RP): “I was diagnosed with depression in 2016 and PTSD in 2017. I don’t have PTSD symptoms any more, but I still get depressive episodes. Therapy and community are the two most important things in my own ongoing healing. I was thankful that my university offered free psychology services so I could see a therapist without cost… Individual therapy offered a non- judgmental space to understand what I was going through and someone to unpack my unhealthy internalised thought patterns.”

Cheryl tan (CT): “I’ve battled suicidal tendencies from a young age as well as periods of depression. As a kid, I did not realise that I had mental health issues, but till today, I can remember almost every episode when I had struggled. Then in 2008, I attended my first yoga class. I spent the first few years struggling to understand my intention for starting the practice and it wasn’t till 2011 when a teacher’s words struck me: ‘Before you can love anyone else, you need to be selfish and learn how to love yourself. Without doing so, you won’t be able to love another.’ A few months later, I moved from Vancouver to Toronto and began using yoga as a tool to navigate through my struggles.”

Nisa Ngaiman (NN): “A few years ago, I encountered a personal crisis and it affected my mood tremendously. I felt tired all the time and questioned my self-worth often. I was not kind to myself. With the encouragement of my loved ones, I decided to seek counselling myself. That gave me a safe and non-judgmental space to make sense and come to terms with the crisis as the matters that I needed to process were very scary and overwhelming.”

On common misconceptions surrounding mental health

NN: “Some of the common misconceptions about mental health disorders are A) It’s just bad attitude – one is too lazy, too scared, lacks drive or just moody or emotional and B) one is either mentally healthy or mentally ill – once you have a disorder, you will never be mentally healthy.”

SN: “That if somebody appears strong or is able to go about his or her day and work ‘normally’, he or she doesn’t have issues and isn’t struggling. We’re often not educated enough to realise that mental health can impact us in many ways. You might think that you’ve got a handle on something, but it can manifest in different ways. A lot of people don’t know or think enough about the importance of being able to understand the true cause of a recurrent issue or identifying unwanted patterns in their lives. I also hope that people realise that one doesn’t have to look sad to feel sad.”

CT: “People have to understand that mental health – even though unseen – is akin to physical health. We require mental muscles to be resilient when adversity hits us. We can hit the gym and gain physical muscular strength and be able to carry 10kg of rice in each hand, but when your family member, friend or colleague aggravates you, will you know how to control your anger or frustration? Would you know what the triggers are? When we can understand these triggers, we can create better boundaries and choices for ourselves to thrive and find peace. All this requires a good understanding of our own mental landscape.”

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Read the continuation of this interview on April 15.

This article first appeared in the April 2020 Reality Edition of FEMALE.