It was reported that more people in Singapore are seeking help for their mental health. However, there are many who are unaware or are in denial of knowing someone with mental health issues.
In this 2-part episode of the ParentEd podcast, we hope to tackle the sensitive issue of how we deal with mental health challenges as a family. What can parents do to support their child or family member?
The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
In today’s episode, we're going to tackle the issue of dealing with mental health challenges as a family, that it’s okay not to be okay at home.
We want to welcome Lily, who is a stay-home mum and has a small business on the side, and she has 3 kids. The youngest of whom is 23-year-old Jack, who is currently in University.
I know it’s a difficult thing and probably the first time you guys are publicly sharing your journey of going through a mental health challenge in the family.
So, I want to just appreciate you for the courage to come and join us at the ParentEd podcast to share your story. Hopefully it will benefit other parents, other families who are going through similar challenges in their life.
As we know, recently the spotlight has been turned on mental health, there’s been a lot of buzz about it. More than ever, as a society we are realising that the impact of mental health goes far and wide. It’s especially affecting our young people - that’s our big concern particularly as parents.
According to the Singapore Health Study in 2016 — we are in 2020 so I don’t think it has gotten any better — the statistic was that 1 in every 7 Singaporeans experienced a mental disorder during their lifetime. That’s quite startling.
But more than a statistic, I know as parents, when that happens at home and particularly to our child, statistics don’t matter anymore.
It’s really about "How do I extend that support? I want the best for my child." So we want to talk today about what we can do when we have a child or family member who is experiencing a mental health challenge, whether it’s depression or anxiety, and what we can do to help.
Jack, perhaps you could share with us what it was like in your journey, dealing with a mental health condition? When did you first discover or get a sense that something is not quite right?
To be honest, people around me would have never guessed that I have an impairment or a mental health condition.
This isn’t just in terms of being quite a sociable person with quite a few friends, but also in terms of academics – I have always maintained pretty good results and achievements in terms of scholarships and awards.
So, to the very, very select few people that I shared my story with, they were all taken back with huge surprise.
Mental health issues is a very wide spectrum of disorders in terms of severity and complexity. A subset of these disorders can be classified as psychiatric, meaning that they require a diagnosis by a doctor made through a very, very specific
criteria outlined by something called the DSM.
I was diagnosed with high functioning persistent depressive disorder, also known as Dysthymia, when I was maybe 16 or 17. Although looking back, I think I could have suffered silently from it as early as primary school.
I have benefited from prescribed medication in the form of long-course antidepressants and anti-anxieties.
The first few years understanding this disease were definitely extremely difficult. I would even say back-breakingly difficult. I think I suffered almost every symptom associated with depression in the book. From insomnia to pseudo-dementia which means impaired concentration and memory, ability to make decisions, and passive suicidal ideation.
So Jack, you mentioned that you suspect you were struggling in the area of mental health way back when you were in primary school.
At what point did you decide that you needed to say something or to get help? Was there like a trigger incident or it just come with growing up and greater self-awareness?
I think for all of us who have a mental health condition, we always come to a certain point when we realise that something is not right. And this can take place with varying severity.
We can go like, “Oh my gosh, I really, really need help!” Or it can be a lot more down moments when you are alone that you realise things just aren’t adding up.
“Why is it that everything in my life is going okay, nothing’s particularly wrong, there is no reason to grieve, yet I am feeling as if like I can’t breathe, I can’t function, I can’t remember things, I can’t talk to people?"
I find that this happens in phases. I was studying overseas for quite a while and there was one particular day when I was at an event in Singapore and my family was there.
I had some physical symptoms, I found that I was very sensitive to the sound around me. I started to hear stuff like echoes; my ears were started to hurt a bit as well. But, more than anything, I was just filled with this completely unfamiliar sensation that I would come to realise is anxiety. And I found it impossible to talk to anyone. So I just left the event.
When my family came to find me and we were heading home in the car, I just told my parents. I had been quiet the entire car ride, until I decided to tell my parents, “Mum, I think I need to see someone and I think it’s serious.”
Thanks for sharing that, Jack. Yah, I think it takes great courage to be able to revisit and recount the whole journey.
Lily, if I could turn to you, you know as a mum, what was it like?
So prior to that incident, I felt that there were some signs and we had been having conversations about what he was going through. He was quieter. You could see that he was not as tuned in to people and to things.
You could sort of feel that he was retreating into himself. We talked about him talking to psychologists and counsellors, which we were very open about.
But I think that incident highlighted that it wasn’t just people that he could talk to, perhaps he needed medication because there could be some kind of chemical issue that we were not aware of.
And when you have other children who are high achievers, and Jack has shown himself to be high achieving, it’s hard to go that way and see that he possibly needed medication. It took me a bit of time and understanding before I felt comfortable for him actually to see a psychiatrist.
I think partly the mother’s protective instinct of treading into something we don’t know very much about – Can psychiatrists really be trusted? Will they give you medication that is good for one part of you and not good for another part of you? And erm, what about the records? Will it do, will it have, any long-term implications for him?
I guessed I was protective of him, but eventually I think I had to tell myself that he needed help and that was more important than anything else at that point of time.
So I hear that when there was this discovery of the mental health challenge, it also caught the family off guard. Were there prior warning signs, like a family history, or is it something environmental that you could see it coming?
I think from very young, I could tell he was sensitive, not just in a negative way but sensitive in a good way as well.
You could tell that this was a child who could feel for people, and there were many moments when it was hard for me because we have no history of mental illness in the family that I know of.
I guess I thought that mental illness is a black and white thing that you have or you don’t have. Jack’s experience has really taught me that it is a spectrum, and the thing is we are all on this spectrum and it’s just whether we want to deal with issues or you want to sit there and let it simmer.
It’s good that Jack himself was able to know he wasn’t well; it was not a normal seasonal flu kind of illness, but deep within him, something was not quite right.
And I think this journey has given us words and vocabulary to describe feelings, and events and past incidences that we didn’t think of analysing.
So there was some unpacking we had to do because in our family of 5, four of us were quite dominant in some way and Jack wasn’t. He was gentler than all of us. He was meeker, and maybe in some sense, in this busy family, I suspect a voice that was not heard as much as it should be.
He is 9 years younger than his oldest sibling, and 6 years younger than the second one, and by the time he came, one would be on some kind of major exam, or one thing or another. So, I think Jack was always sort of like a bit in the shadow, if I may use that word.
I felt that he was always loved and the older siblings also felt that he was doted on and loved. But I am not sure whether what we said was what he heard, what we did was what he felt. The unpacking process helped us discover how deep his feelings were.
It sounds like a really long journey for both of you. From the child’s perspective, who is going through the suffering as well as the parent, who is trying to show love appropriately, just always being available.
If there is one thing that you’d like to say to each other, even as you are still on this journey but thankfully, hopefully coming out of it or at the tail end of it, is there something that you’d like to say to each other, parent to child and child to parent? What would that be?
For me, Jack’s mental health doesn’t define him. Jack is who he is — he is humble despite his talents, he is sweet, he is considerate, he is kind, he is many things. He is really bright, he is really witty, he is really fun to be with and his mental health which comes in now and then is just a part of him.
I have learnt and I am still learning to walk with him. I've made mistakes and when I make mistakes, I apologise and hope he forgives me. And he knows, I hope he knows with no reservation, that I love him very much and I will be there with him throughout.
I would take this opportunity to say that I am really grateful for everything that you have done for me, especially in the times when I was very symptomatic. Maybe I felt like I was being bombarded with feelings of self-doubt, of anxiety. I am just really, really glad that there was someone who I knew will always be there for me... And to apologise for times that I have been insensitive and caustic with my words.
Tune in for Part 2 of the podcast.
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