“Do you know how happy is Singapore compared to other countries? According to the World Happiness Report, Singaporeans’ Happiness Index ranks at Number 31 amongst 153 countries,” said Simon Leow, co-founder of Happiness Initiative, a collaborative partner at Tzu Chi Humanistic Youth Centre.
On February 21st, 2021, Tzu Chi Foundation (Singapore) and Silver Ribbon held a signing ceremony of a Memorandum of Understanding at the Humanistic Youth Centre which aims to introduce free psychological counselling services. Singaporeans can seek counselling service by either appointment or walk-ins. The scope of collaboration also includes the provision of psychological consultation and training services for Tzu Chi’s employees, volunteers and caregivers starting from February 23rd, 2021. The Tzu Chi Humanities Youth Center on the other hand, will provide the venue for Silver Ribbon to conduct the counselling sessions for residents in need.
After the signing ceremony, Simon Leow, co-founder of Happiness Initiative, a collaborative partner at the youth centre, conducted an online-sharing session on the topic of “Science of Happiness". Christon Choo, a former school counsellor, Associate Professor Lee Cheng, together with Bernice Leong, a former psychiatric patient, and registered nurse Renay Pereira, held a panel discussion on the importance of mental health for young people.
During the session, Simon Leow conducted an interesting poll with online participants where he asked them, "If you could decide on the amount of salary for yourself, your friends and your colleagues, which of the following would you choose? Option 1: You earn $100,000 in a year while your friends and colleagues, who are given the same workload, earn $250,000. Option 2: You earn $50,000 in a year while your friends and colleagues, who are given the same workload, will earn $25,000.”
Simon Leow said that 56% of people would choose Option 2, even though they would be paid less than that in Option 1. If we were to simply look at our own salary, everyone would opt for Option 1 because that gives us higher salary. But when people start to take other people’s salary into consideration, Simon said, “Our focus is no longer how much we earn, but how much we earn more than other people.”
Simon suggests that comparing the achievements of others to our own, will easily reduce our ability to appreciate ourselves and enjoy our own time, which is why people tend to think that happiness is only short-lived.
“We can reset our reference point by comparing with ourselves and not with others,” said Simon who feels that people should avoid making unnecessary social comparisons which happen mostly online. It is a platform for people to share snippets of their lives but more often than not, people only share the glamorous side of their life. If social media is to be filled with photos of limited-edition sports cars, luxury vacations or dinners at fancy restaurants, most of us would subconsciously compare ourselves to others, and these comparisons are usually unrealistic and unhealthy. Simon recommends for people to take a break from social media for a while, or selectively browse through more positive or informative posts.
Simon also recommends people to pen down what they are grateful for on a daily or weekly basis and put the note into a bottle to nurture gratitude. If it is possible to nurture gratitude together with friends or family members and eventually making it a habit, one will in time realise that life is filled with things worth cherishing and naturally have lesser dissatisfaction towards life. We can tell people we love directly how important they are to us. For some who are not used to expressing themselves verbally in the beginning, doing something thoughtful for the other party can also be a way to express gratitude.
Why is Mental Health important?
Christon Choo, a former school counsellor said that there are too many misconceptions about mental health amongst local youths. They generally stigmatise mental illnesses. He recalled an incident where a student came to his office to seek psychological counselling. Before entering the office, the student had walked around the building twice to ensure that no friends were nearby as he was afraid that his friends would see him and call him crazy. Christon continued to share that mental illness is just like any other physical illnesses. When we catch a cold, we will go to the doctor. Likewise, when our mental health is compromised, it is perfectly normal to visit a psychiatrist.
Associate Professor Lee Cheng said that psychological counselling services used to be provided in hospitals in the past, but now many organisations are providing similar services within the community. This will help reduce the stigma related to mental illness while making it easier for the public to seek help, and parents would also be able to obtain adequate information related to mental health issue more easily. Those who suffer mental illness in the early stage will show only subtle signs such as poor sleep, irritation, and behavioural problem, which are hard for teacher to detect, especially when they face with a large number of students in class. Instead, Associate Professor Lee recommends for parents to observe closely for subtle changes in their children’s behavior when they are with them at night and over the weekends.
Bernice Leong who once suffered from depression and anxiety in her teenage years said that students often spend a lot of time in school. Therefore, if schools could create an open environment that embraces open-mindedness and promote activities on mental health awareness, students would know where to seek help when they are faced with mental health problems. Bernice further shared that many years ago, there was an extensive period when she felt incredibly stressed, helpless and was not able to catch her breath. Back then, she was unaware that those were symptoms of depression or anxiety disorder. “At that time, I always mistakenly thought that those were normal symptoms which others also experience when they are under a great amount of stress.” Now recovered, Bernice believes that if more attention were paid to the topic of mental health, people in need would then be able to identify the symptoms promptly and receive appropriate treatment timely.
Renay Pereira, a registered nurse, says that amongst those who suffer from mental health problems, only a handful of them will proactively seek help. This could be due to time constraints or they feel that seeking help from a psychiatrist is something shameful. On the contrary, to have the courage to admit that one is suffering from mental illness is an important step in the treatment. When a patient is not ready to come forward to seek help, giving them ample amount of time and space is also important besides providing companionship. Renay feels that with the support and care from family members, mental illness can often be treated effectively.
Some students or parents are wary that by seeking help from the school counsellors, their mental health condition would be become known by their peers and become a gossip in school, or that it would affect how the students will be graded by their teachers. Christon clarified that counsellors or psychiatrist are legally bound to ensure that the medical condition of the student or patient is kept confidential. However, if it concerns safety issues such as a student wanting to commit suicide, the counsellor will then have to inform the relevant department to intervene so as to prevent any mishap from happening.
Many people think that going to a psychiatrist would land them in long-term medication, and that those medications would bring about side effects. “But this is not true as most of the psychiatric patients are not required to be on long-term medication. Also, with advancement of drugs, there a lot of new drugs with lesser side effects,” said Associate Professor Lee. He also shared that mental illness can be alleviated through psychological counselling, exercise and music therapy.