This article is a continuation from our previous one here where spoke to five Singapore women from various disciplines who have been vocal about the mental wellness to share more about what you need to know, erase and do next.
On the mental health landscape in Singapore today
Nisa Ngaiman (NN): “We have more and more people speaking up and advocating for mental health, which recently has resulted in policy and legislation changes. For example, people with mental health conditions no longer need to declare their condition in job applications. There have also been amendments in the Penal Code so that attempted suicide is no longer a crime. The advent of social media had also led to great initiatives like the Instagram account @mysafesphere (started by Female beauty contributor Faz Gaffa) that helps to reduce the stigma of mental health issues. The fact that we have such amazing ground-up initiatives tells me that people are more empowered to make improvements to our mental health sphere.”
Sarah Naeem (SN): “There’s definitely growing conversation about the topic, but through my own experience, there remains a lack of true understanding and acceptance on the part of institutions… You might have an open and comfortable working environment, but mental health is such a sensitive and personal issue. It’s not enough to talk about things on a surface level. For example, you know how companies in recent years have been using rainbow decals and posting on Instagram about how they support the pride movement? It’s mostly just marketing. We need actual structural change. Are these companies really implementing sound policies that empower their employees beyond what is being said?”
Rachel Pang (RP): “It’s terrible. I think we have to say it as it is to be able to identify the issues and make things better… Some of the key issues include lack of awareness; stigma; questionable methods of dealing with mental health such as how being institutionalised could be more traumatising than helpful; limited resources and access to them – therapy is expensive and insurance doesn’t cover it.”
Six years after he staged a show in a makeshift asylum, Thom Browne again elicits commentary about mental health in fashion with his Spring/Summer 2020 show that featured models tottering around giddily in tweed skirt suits with extreme panniers and tulle veils like brides on a high.To accompany the entire affair: an aptly schizophrenic soundtrack that segued from classic musical to thrash metal to the Teletubbies theme song.
On the relationship between fashion and mental health
Cheryl Tan (CT): “Clothing, accessories and makeup are tools that allow us to express ourselves and our identity. As shallow as this might sound, we inevitably judge ourselves and others by appearances so fashion does influence and correlate to how we feel emotionally and mentally. When we see beautiful images in magazines or on social media, we seldom question the complexity of issues that the subject might be facing – and there’s almost no way of knowing. The fashion industry does pride itself on perfection and could lead readers to continuously strive towards an unrealistic goal that could be mentally and emotionally stressful. At the same time, publications, brands, influencers can potentially serve as great platforms. That Female is doing this story and asking these questions is a great testament of the value the title sees in raising awareness for mental health and humanising fashion.”
NN: “In recent years, the fashion industry has been increasingly using its platform to celebrate individuality, diversity and empowerment and I imagine that this would have a positive impact on mental health. I’ve seen how my clients use fashion – for example, big colourful earrings or a smart shirt – as an avenue to express themselves and reclaim their sense of self and improve their confidence.”
On the relationship between social media and mental health
Narelle Kheng (NK): “Social media is definitely a big topic for conversation here because social media is technically not conversation. A lot of it is people being narcissistic and while there’s so much noise, people aren’t really talking to one another. Social media also tends to represent only one aspect of reality. That’s why it was important for me to try to change that narrative such as by making it okay to post things that are not necessarily pretty. I battled a lot on my own because you realise that not everybody understands mental health. People would come up and ask things like, ‘Are you okay? Why are you so sad?’ when inside, I’ve been feeling inexplicably sad for a lot of my life. It’s just that I’m talking about it now. It doesn’t mean I’m sadder now. In fact I’m happier because I’m more open about it.”
CT: “The festival has served as a great platform for us to share and collect stories and create a community that is willing to listen and offer words of kindness and encouragement. It has also allowed us to understand what audiences would like to know about mental health and help clarify any misunderstanding or doubts. Ironically when it comes to consuming social media, I feel that it has detrimental effects on a person’s self-esteem and ability to be present. For example, we turn towards our mobile devices multiple times a day in uncomfortable moments or while on commute… And since social media is largely unregulated, negativity from keyboard warriors might cause mental distress.”
On new platforms one can turn to for help
RP: “Your Head Lah! is a mental health collective and online publication started in 2018 that amplifies marginalised voices. It advocates for community care and the recognition of structural factors in the cause of mental illness. The team is in the midst of compiling a list of good therapists with notes on those who are queer-affirming, racial oppression aware etc.”
NK: “I know that the local start-up Safe Space is trying to create an app that makes communication between users and counsellors easier. I’ve tried calling services like Samaritans of Singapore myself, but couldn’t get through. When I was doing research for my EP, I also realised there are a lot of people working in these specialised institutions who don’t understand how to communicate with people struggling with mental health issues. That said, I was at *Scape recently and noticed this place on the top floor called CHAT (short for Community Health Assessment Team and formed in 2009, this is an organisation of healthcare professionals who provide mental health assessments to those aged between 16 and 30) and took some brochures that were quite helpful.”
On changes they’d like to see implemented here
SN: “As a small business owner, I’m at work every day and have a personal relationship with everyone who works here, so I’m able to talk to them one on one and understand them better… What I’d like to see is big companies making systematic change and implementing policies that allow their employees to have more of such conversations and not just among those on the same hierarchy level, but also directed towards those who are higher up in the chain of command… We also need to better educate children from a younger age to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental illness. People need to take this matter more seriously because from my own experience, people get really uncomfortable when you try to talk about it. Sometimes it’s not because they don’t want to, but more that they don’t know how to.”
NK: “I’d like to see people slow down a bit and place greater value on holistic things that can’t be easily quantifiable – art or dog walks for example; things that help keep us in touch with reality. That also means more spaces in nature where people can pull away from the hustle and bustle and find some peace.” RP: “There are so many small changes that can be implemented in the short term and alleviate the situation. For example, school counsellors shouldn’t have to disclose personal information, insurance companies should start covering mental health and there should be a thorough review of institutionalisation practices.”
NN: “In Singapore, I don’t think that we have fully explored technology’s potential in providing mental health support and intervention. I would like to see more local e-mental health services here. With the availability of more such services, I believe more youth will be able to get the help that they need.”
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
This article first appeared in the April 2020 Reality Edition of FEMALE