Interview: Dr Julian Hong On The Importance Of Mental Health Awareness And The Stigma Around It In Singapore

Interview: Dr Julian Hong On The Importance Of Mental Health Awareness And The Stigma Around It In Singapore

HSA speaks to Dr Julian Hong, DTAP Clinic Group, about the stigma of mental illness in Singapore and the importance of mental health awareness

Mental illness is an increasingly worrying trend in Singapore. Almost one in seven Singaporean reportedly suffers with either depression, alcohol abuse, and/or OCD (obsessive compulsive disorders), making the importance of mental health awareness a vital cause. 

Unfortunately, as the numbers continue go up, so does stigma around the subject. 

An National Council of Social Service (NCSS) survey titled, Attitudes towards persons with mental health conditions in Singapore 2017 revealed worrying prejudices in society. It noted that almost five out of 10 people did not want to stay with or near, or work with persons with mental illness. Even though the reality is that mental illnesses have cures and patients can recover and bounce back.

We at HerStyleAsia had an exclusive interview with Dr Julian Hong, from DTAP Clinic Group, Singapore, and the alternate director of Resilience Collective to understand the importance of mental health awareness. We also spoke about it stigma around the subject and how to overcome it.  

Importance Of Mental Health Awareness Cannot Be Denied Today 

HSA: Is there a stigma of suffering from a mental illness in Singapore?

Dr Hong: Yes there is.

In 2018, the “Beyond The Label” movement was launched to address stigma faced by persons with mental health conditions in society. This was derived from a series of studies by the National Council of Social Services (NCSS), with persons having mental health conditions and also from the general population. The main findings showed that persons with mental health conditions have a significantly lower quality of life than the general population. More profoundly, 7 in 10 persons with mental health conditions face challenges living with dignity because of the negative attitudes and actions of others.

It was also found that the public has many misperceptions about persons with mental health conditions. Fear and the lack of understanding, coupled with stereotype knowledge and the influence of media, contribute to the issue of deep-seated stigma that is prevalent in society

This stigma occurs at 2 levels, from the persons with mental health conditions facing stigma from others and the general population’s views, stereotypes and bias towards persons with mental health conditions.

HSA: What are the most common mental illnesses in SG?

Dr Hong: Here are some stats behind the common mental illnesses in SG from the 2nd Singapore Mental Health Study, which reported the top mental health concerns in Singapore. In fact one in seven of people in Singapore has experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime.

  • Major Depressive Disorder (Depression
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder

HSA: Do you see many young girls and boys approach you about the mental illness they may be going through?

Dr Hong: The needs and life challenges of young people differ through each stage of life. The common challenges that they face include exam stress and subsequently as they go through puberty, even emotional and relationship stressors.

Picking up mental health challenges in young people can be challenging and opportunistic. Many a times as they come and see me for a Cough or Flu, a simple “How is everything at home?”, “How are things with your boyfriend, girlfriend?”, “How is School?” can reveal a lot about their mental health and provide the gateway to asking if they have had any suicidal thoughts.

Unless a youth is aware that he or she has a mental health condition, most of the time a concerned parent will bring their child to see a doctor or counsellor which begins the process.

I will slightly digress from the question because this is something close to my heart to prevent suicide, and if a reader that has read your article can intervene timely in their loved one’s life, that is already one life saved !

These figures from Samaritans of Singapore can put things into perspective.

In Singapore, suicide is the leading cause of death for those aged 10-29. There are 2.5 times more deaths from suicide than transport accidents in 2017. 361 lives were lost to suicide in 2017. Males account for more than 66.2 percent of all suicides in 2017.

If you are a loved one who knows of a young person struggling with their mental health, these are some warning signs to look out for (adapted from SOS Singapore)

Talk

  • “My family will be better off without me”
  • “My life is meaningless anyway”
  • “If you don't love me, I'll kill myself”

Actions

  • Giving away treasured possessions and saying goodbye
  • Researching suicide methods
  • Writing suicide notes (including emails/diaries/blogs)

Mood

  • Emotional outbursts
    (anger, sadness, irritability, recklessness)
  • Loss of interest
  • Anxiousness or feelings of shame

For immediate help - • Call 999 or the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) at 1800-221-4444 (Both operate 24/7). Stay on the phone with them until someone comes to you.

Or, head down to the Accident & Emergency (A&E) Department of the nearest hospital for someone to attend to you.

For non urgent cases, IMH has a community health assessment team (CHAT) for mental health assessment at Scape Hub Orchard - you can make an online appointment here

HSA: Why are mental illness always considered a stigma?

Dr Hong: Lack of awareness and understanding is a major problem why mental illness is a stigma. Fear of the unknown about the condition is also a cause.

Unless a person comes into contact or personally knows someone who has a mental health condition, there will always be a bias of perspective or stereotype which may inadvertently cause them to reinforce their negative thinking and subsequently actions towards people with mental health conditions.

HSA: What's your advice to somebody who may be suffering from a mental illness?

Dr Hong: It is important to take the first step to seek professional help. Even if you are unsure, taking the first step to reach out is important

If you are an older person, speaking with your family doctor or your polyclinic is a good start. If you are a youth, you can make an appointment at CHAT @ Scape Orchard.

HSA: How can a young person identify that they have mental health issues? What are the symptoms?

Dr Hong: Here are some common symptoms from the top three mental health conditions in Singapore.

Depression:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness for more than two weeks
  • Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy

Anxiety:

  • Feelings of anxiety overwhelming and affecting your daily life

Schizophrenia:

  • Believe you possess special powers
  • Believe others are always out to get you

HSA: How would you advice youth should approach mental illness?

Dr Hong: It would be useful to debunk some myths for young people as they approach mental illness. This also helps raise awareness about the importance of mental health awareness.

  1. I will not have any mental health condition: Mental health conditions are surprisingly common, one in 10 people in Singapore are prone to developing a mental health condition in their life.
  2. I can’t do anything for someone with a mental health condition: You can make a huge difference for someone with a mental health condition.
  3. You can start with communicating with CARE -Clear and simple language when talking, Acknowledge his/her concerns, be Respectful and reassuring, and Engage to provide comfort and build trust.
  4. Once a person develops a mental health condition, they will not recover: That is not true as many with the condition on the right treatment often make a full recovery and reintegrate back into the normalcy of life in their community, supported by their loved ones and community

Dr Hong was at moderator at the Singapore Mental Health Conference, on "Empowerment and Recovery". This conference was held from 30 - 31 January 2019, post which we e-interviewed him. 

Also read: Smiling Depression Is Very Real And It More Dangerous Than You Think

Written by

Deepshikha Punj