Monday, December 1, 2008

Tacking mental illness in Singapore

Psychiatric patients are often “trapped” by an illness over which they have no control. With proper medication, counseling and family and community support, many will recover and go on to lead perfectly normal lives. To enable them to pay for their medical expenses, patients undergoing psychiatric care need a steady job. This is why I suggested, through the media (TODAY Newspaper) on 14th September 2006 that the Government and other organisations come with a similar project like the Yellow Ribbon Project to provide the much-needed support for the mentally ill. Although I did not start the project, the many letters I wrote to the media has helped to create the support to launch the ongoing campaign called the “Silver Ribbon Singapore” project whose mission is to fight the stigma and help patients find work.

Given that mental illness is fast growing in our stressful environment, a holistic approach is needed to tackle this problem. Mental illness is entering our schools, creeping into our offices and destroying lives and ripping families apart. While psychiatrists may give a clinical view, what is urgently needed is for society to learn from experienced and resilient caregivers who have stuck faithfully to their stricken ones and helped them in their recovery. For many years, caregiving expertise has not been shared and if you are caring for someone who has just been diagnosed with a mental illness, the caregiver will be ‘lost” and groping in the dark.

More than 32 organisations, including Government departments has seen value in my talks and I find it so rewarding doing this community project. We must reclaim lives, save lives. But sadly, not everyone sees value in my expertise, but I will continue to press on, because as a “Model Caregiver 2007”, I must stay committed to my cause. I have several talks lined up for 2009 and I hope that those in the mental health industry will continue to partner me so that we can better tackle mental illness in Singapore.

The Institute of Mental Health (IMH) has understood my call for a holistic approach to tackle mental illness and invited me to speak at a public forum during the Asia Pacific Psychiatric Rehabilitation Conference (APPRC) in October 2008. Speaking before a 130-strong audience comprising of counselors, nurses, doctors and caregivers, recovered patients and laymen, I was able to move my audience during my 30-minute presentation entitled, “THE LOVE OF MY LIFE – Now I know what love is.” Here I shared my 30-year journey in caring for my wife who was stricken with schizophrenia since the age of 17 and how I have encourage, inspired and motivated her into becoming a successful author.

Support structure for caregivers

What is also crucial in tackling mental illness is strong structural support for caregivers. This is clearly lacking in Singapore. Since my wife has been stricken with severe arthritis, she can no longer cook as she is at fall risks. I have gone all over Singapore to secure a decent cooked meal for her. It is a daunting task. Caregiving is 24/7 and many of us have to give up our jobs to care fulltime for our stricken ones. Hence the need for a caregiver allowance that is similar in nature to the one implemented by the Australian Government. I first raised this matter in the Straits Times Forum Page. Details are on my website along with the many other letters I wrote to the media.

Caregivers who are caring for a love one with mental illness are often isolated. Family and friends all run away. So, we are in dire need of Befrienders.

I remember when I left my job and had fallen by the wayside with no money, almost everyone ran away. It was only my beloved wife, Doris and a few friends that stood by us. But now that I am successful, people come running like ants to sugar. So, welcome to the real world!

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