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. Tune in for Part 1 of the podcast.
Jack, it has been 10 years since you discovered that you have this mental health condition. Can you share with us and give us a picture of what this journey has been like, how has life changed or had to change for you?
I am very glad you asked that because I am quite thankful that the past 1.5 years has actually been significantly better — in terms of my emotional state, my symptoms, my performance, both in school and in other things like sports, music and stuff like that.
Definitely, for the first maybe 3 or 4 years, just the concept of coming to terms that you have a mental health condition is something not easily believable, at least in our society today.
Not many people will take you seriously, and with the symptoms already being very hard to cope with, you can imagine having to sit for a national exam, especially if you can’t sleep consistently for the entire week.
It was frustrating; a lot of times, I found myself wondering what was wrong with me, why can’t I be normal, that kind of thing. I wouldn’t say that I am completely free from those thoughts, even now. And though I would say I am almost like 95% recovered, there are still times where I don’t function as well.
Even though it’s not as bad as what it used to be, sometimes it can flare up. So for example, COVID-19 has definitely been a very difficult time, especially for people with mental health conditions. Not being able to go out as much, not being able to do the stuff that you used to do, see your friends, that kind of thing.
Personally, I've struggled with sleep since Covid started in February and March. Sometimes it’s really, really good and I can get a full night of rest, sometimes I don’t sleep at all.
I think while there are many coping strategies, I would definitely swear by these things that I am very thankful for in learning to cope with this disorder.
I will definitely not shy away from the importance of social support, in particular the family. You can have as many good friends as you want but in the end, it’s the family – it forms the home every day.
They are the people who love you unconditionally, even if you’re completely difficult, too hard to talk to, maybe completely impossible to live with, even for a month, but they are still gonna love you. That’s why home is so important. Maybe that’s what I can share for now.
Thanks Jack, you know, maybe if you could just help the parents listening, if they have a child who is struggling in the area of mental health, what would you actually suggest that they should do?
Perhaps they never talk about mental health or such topics at home, but they suspect that their child is not doing so well. What has been helpful for you and your journey? As you said, finding that family support is so important. So what can parents out there do?
If we have someone very close to us who has a mental health condition, the very first thing that we all have to do is to let them know that they are important to us. We acknowledge that they are suffering and we are here for them, for their recovery, and not to downplay anything.
When we are talking about these issues, remember that mental health conditions are very, very complex, they are not definitely not make-believe. There has been 50 years of scientific research to prove that point.
But even now, with the absence of knowing people who struggle with this personally, sometimes we are very quick to dismiss it. In the Singaporean context, we say, “Oh, this guy is siao!” or “Maybe this guy has always been like this,” “He needs to get a hold of himself."
We need to remember that these are medical problems that should be managed by professionals, be it therapists, psychologists or psychiatrists. These conditions can possibly be psychiatric; therefore, it requires invention by the medical doctor. I think it’s really a pity that the people closest to us don’t know that we are there for them.
Personally, I know people who have passed away from complications of depression, not just depression but also eating disorders and schizophrenia.
And I just wish that the people around them were better equipped to help. Instead of blame when someone suffers from this condition, there must be much more room for understanding, in love and in kindness and in patience.
For the people who are struggling with mental health conditions, unfortunately I don’t have an answer or sure-fire way to cure the disease or make it go away, and I don’t think anybody does. But the thing that I felt was most helpful over the years and the most pragmatic advice that I can give is to pursue your hobbies and anything that may interest you.
You will be very surprised that when we love something, we'll find that doing it brings joy, with joy comes excitement, and with excitement comes hope.
This can take the form of anything for a while. There was once when I was struggling with some symptoms, and all of a sudden, I realised that I liked to cook. I don’t cook anymore but at that time, I will make every excuse to make a very simple dish, and on my family's aspect, it just requires more cleaning up, which of course I did. So close ones should definitely, within reasonable limits, try to support them in the things they enjoy.
Those are great practical tips and I hope parents out there hear that very big don't – don't downplay what your child may be feeling and going through. Definitely don't tell them just to snap out of it.
Lily, I hear your heart as a mum, wanting to protect your child. What has been the most difficult part of this journey in walking with Jack on his condition, and what has helped you to help him?
Well, the most difficult part is when they are feeling lousy. When they are better, when they sleep well, when they are happy, you forget those low moments very fast.
But when they are going through a bad patch, they can’t fall asleep, they don’t feel like going out, they don’t want to get out of bed, they feel that everything is hopeless, no energy to be interested in anything.
Those moments are very tough because you really feel for them, you are struggling against your natural instincts of getting them out of bed and forcing your way, and bulldozing your way, and telling them just like you said, "snap out of it". But that is so unkind — if they could have snapped out of it, why wouldn’t they have done so?
So, those moments are very difficult. It’s really causes you to be patient, to love them unconditionally, to be intentionally and deliberately patient and loving. They are your child and you won’t love your child less if they lost a leg, an arm, or if they had made a silly mistake.
So why would you love your child less, if they have a mental health issue? This is not something they want. They happen to be the—if I may use the phrase—“unfortunate lot” that is wired in a certain way that predisposes them.
I find that just being there helped him. It could be giving them space if they want to be alone and then going in to check on them, or bringing them tea, or just like sitting in the room reading the papers while they are doing their stuff. Just asking “you want to go for a drive?”, and all that... just being there, and not expecting him to come out of it any time because that in itself is pressure for him.
Thank you both for your heartfelt sharing. I know it’s difficult to talk about this issue and many families don’t. With your experience going through this in the family, would you actually advise parents or even the kids themselves to begin these conversations at home?
Recognising that in society today, there is still some stigma with regards to mental health, as Jack shared earlier. Of course, we will also have personal reservations with regards to treating mental health. Lily, you shared your reservation about being reliant on medication, for example. How would you encourage families to just start talking about this at home?
I would like to reassure everybody who is considering taking medication or has been advised by a doctor, that medication is not something that you just throw at the condition in the hope it gets better. It’s evidence-based, very specific, in the way that it is administered. Very, very careful trials have been conducted to ensure that the medication has proven safe and beneficial to the patient.
If you are unsure, if this is your first time battling a mental health condition, that there really isn’t any harm with seeking a second opinion. The general rule for any mental health condition is being able to talk about it. Nothing good comes out of bottling it up.
For families, I would strongly suggest paying a little bit more attention to the way we talk to each other.
Something that I always say to my friends and family – it’s never about what you say but how you say it. How you say it reflects the way that you respect someone, and whether or not you see this person as an equal. Someone that you treasure or the person you love. The way that you speak will let the person know that he or she is valued in spite of his conditions.
I would also suggest, not just for families who struggle with mental health conditions, but really any family, anybody — when you talk to someone with a mental health condition, whether an acquaintance or a close friend, it’s always good to go beyond a normal “How are you?” when you talk to that person.
Be careful not to sound as if you are sympathetic or you pity the person. Talk to the person with love, with kindness, with patience. Don’t force the person to talk if he is not willing to talk.
Lastly, when we talk about mental health conditions in general, it’s very important that we treat them as medical conditions and not some kind of pseudo-science mumbo jumbo.
For example, if a friend is telling me of another friend who is struggling with eating disorders or depression, instead of asking, instead of commenting on the condition or saying, “Has she always been like that?” or something that doesn’t really reflect true concern, something that I always find helpful to say to my friends or acquaintances is to ask them
How are you feeling now?
Has he or she sought medical help?
Is there anything we can do for this person at this moment of time?
Does the person know that there are people who actually care for them for him?
Indeed. Lily, you were talking about how you have always stayed connected with your kids, including Jack. Even while he was overseas, you would constantly talk and connect. Did you ever speak about mental health challenges? Did the topic ever come up? How would you advice families to start approaching the topic?
When the children were young, there were moments when they felt that they weren’t happy in school or they weren’t happy with their friends. There are ups and downs in their growing up years; years when their friends were so important outside, years when they are upset with their social life.
I have always thought that they should know that the home is a sanctuary. That they should always come home and it is where you are safe, it is where you are accepted.
I’ve always hoped that they will look forward to coming home. As a family, we have our tiffs – there have been moments where we were impatient and unkind to one another. But we operate on the basis that I am flawed and there are moments they are flawed as well. Then when we reflect on the way we speak, I would go – and Jack knows this – and say that "I think I wasn’t kind in how I said it".
There were moments where we would agree to disagree, and then we will give each other a hug because we obviously saw things from different perspectives. I think in a relationship, we can always work things out.
One thing I have to say to parents whose children are going through such difficult times, if your child is paralysed from the waist down, you would have to learn how to take care of him, you would have to go into rehab with him and learn how to help him in the initial period. And then you would have to learn how to cheer him along when he takes over how to take care of himself.
This is no different – I have to learn what I can say or cannot say, when I must bite my tongue and if it slips out, you learn to apologise and learn that "Okay, I have to learn not to say it in this way, or I have to not say it at all."
And along the way, Jack gives me the insight into mental health issues. I have to applaud him because he is teaching me and indeed he has taught me.
I mean, you can hear from him, he is so adaptive to this issue because it is firsthand experience for him. So in that sense, it isn’t like, I am his parent and I am teaching him all this positive thinking. It isn’t that. He is smart, if it can be so easily absorbed, he would have done it.
So he takes his moment to learn, then he teaches me in return, which I am thankful and grateful for. I think if you really do not shut down the young people, they have so much to offer us. They live in the real world and sometimes I feel like I live in the bubble.
It’s been an interesting journey, not without tears, not without worries, but certainly not without joy as well.
We both had many moments where we said that “Oh, certain things have become clearer why it is like this at home.” Certain things were not quite right at home, and we needed to correct that.
There are powerful moments as well. There was a particular moment when Jack was the mediator of an argument I had with my older child. That was amazing for me because he is the youngest in the family, and for him to stand up and say “Look guys, you are not listening to each other. This is what Mum meant, and this is what gor gor meant.” That was a sign to me that he really is maturing and he is wise beyond his years.
At the end of the day, our kids are also growing up right? And they are becoming a person in themselves – individuating. It’s so refreshing to hear you share on your parenting journey and your lessons. I think all of us as parents need to continue to be humble and willing to learn from our kids. As they grow up, they also have much to teach us about ourselves and about this very rapidly changing and evolving world that we live in today.
Many people describe depression as an inner prison. As someone outside that prison, it’s difficult to see our loved one struggle with depression and feel like we don’t have the key to get them out of that prison.
But we want to encourage families. If you have a family member struggling in this area of mental health, even while we can’t get into that prison with them, we can still choose to sit right outside the door and keep doing whatever we can to help them to know that they are not alone.
We are really thankful that we have mother and son, Lily and Jack, to come onto our ParentEd podcast to share their journey, their experiences dealing with mental health issues as a family.
Parents, we want to encourage you to have that connection with your child. As we heard today, it starts with that connection so that we can broach taboo subjects like mental health with our kids, and also being supportive and learning to parent them differently, where they would have their needs met.
If you have other questions that we can help you with, particularly in this area of parenting a child with a mental health condition, please write to us at [email protected] and of course, you can also subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter with tips and articles on family life.
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