Crowded MRT Train

Leaving the mentally ill behind

We see sights like the one above on the train. It almost becomes parts of our daily routine. I was a commuter on the train recently, on my way to many different job interviews. These two issues etched a thought in my mind: (1) How many people I see out and about suffer from some form of mental illness?; and (2) Am I going to face the same stigma because I am ill?




(1) I doubt so

My answer to the first question, after a bit of pondering, is: the people I see out and about is not a true statistical representation of the mental health crisis we have in Singapore. Statistically, close to one in twelve have some form of mental illness. But in a train of 100 people, I doubt 8 people will own up to being ill.

Those who are mentally ill (at least those that I can talk to) don’t feel comfortable leaving their homes or going out alone. Both of which, I relate to. While I feel a lot more comfortable being alone, it doesn’t seem beneficial to live a life in complete isolation. I still have trouble leaving the house due to my nagging anxiety.

So no, I don’t think I can get people to own up to being ill. That is because (a) it’s going to find those who are ill actually out and about alone, and (b) we, as a society, aren’t comfortable talking about mental health. We have a crisis that we are actively ignoring – which leaves those who are ill behind, not by their own choice.

By shunning the topic, those who are ill won’t feel comfortable talking about it as well, let alone leave the house and try to integrate back into being part of the society. No one would try to integrate into the same group that often misunderstands and stigmatises them.

While I understand this crisis can be due to the ignorance of some, there are many who understand and support their family or friends in need of a helping hand. And we shouldn’t be ashamed or afraid of talking about illness. Ignoring the flu could cause you to get a high fever, so why not this biological brain malfunction?


(2) Yes – quite sadly

When the boss saw in my application form for a waitressing job that I had a mental illness, he asked what would happen if I had a relapse. I told him I had coping methods that I could use. His response was, ‘If that’s the case, then our position is full’.


I have always thought that the application forms for jobs should place less emphasis on the fact that you might  be suffering from a mental condition. I see it as a very specific and isolating question to ask a candidate. As if we could – I don’t know – filter out results by such a result.

Ms Yamuna Segaran, 26, who has had acute anxiety and depression since her teenage years, said an interviewer once pushed her resume away upon learning about her mental health condition.

This was even though the interviewer had initially been impressed by her work experience.

It is a shame how we invalidate work that someone – including myself – have done, because of the fact that I have to see a doctor every 6 to 8 weeks and am on various mediation. Something that is, most of the time, out of our control, can invalidate years of hard work.

The unemployment rate of people with mental illnesses almost everywhere (including Singapore) is strikingly and disturbingly high – despite having the highest “want to work” rate of any unemployed group. 

So we are putting those who want to work, out of work and placing those who would be better in other positions, in those same positions. Such a shame.

Ms Valerie Liu, 34, who has had schizophrenia since 2008, feels that people with mental illnesses also have to overcome their own biases and fears. Some may themselves hold negative stereotypes associated with mental health sufferers, or be afraid of communicating with people.

While this is true, we have to understand that this is often brought about by stigma, and self-stigmatisation. As a society, we see mental health as such a weakness that us, as the mentally ill, see ourselves as the inferior group and prevent ourselves from getting better outright.


Anti-Discrimination in Singapore

We do not have legislation that prevents discrimination against those with mental illness in the workplace.

Likewise, to help the mentally ill, one would need to train every employer and every Singaporean to be more aware of how to work with people with such conditions – similar to teaching everyone basic first aid. This is obviously much harder than building ramps and lifts in every building. (…)

Sum Siew Kee

Just because it is not so simple, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And we aren’t. Because it is costly and troublesome to employers. This is quintessentially why I think the workplace environment in Singapore is hostile and flat, with little sympathy. We should not be able to prevent access to work to a certain group of people because we inconvenience a few. But we still can, and we do.


Crisis Intervention Training

Part of a pioneering program in helping those with mental illness get help, some police special units in the USA are trained in crisis intervention. They identify those in need, speak to them, and bring them to the help that they need. This is instead of incarcerating or isolating them.

Calling it a pioneering program is a little heartbreaking. Pioneering ideas should not be completely obvious things that we should have been doing all along. They should be outlandish things that push the limit of the possible.

John Oliver

It humours me that it takes a late night TV show host to do a piece of mental health and speak more truth than we do on a daily basis.




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