Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Urgent support needed for the mentally ill & their caregivers

I am deeply saddened by the attack on Member of Parliament (MP) Mr Seng Han Thong on Sunday 11th January 2009 by former cabby Ong Kah Chua aged 70 years. From the news reports, it appears that his alleged attacker is a mental patient.

Mr Seng Han Thong has always been a supportive MP and he has helped my wife, Doris Lau and myself during the periods when Doris suffered relapses of her schizophrenia. My wife and I have lit candles for Mr Seng and we will continue to pray for his full recovery.

What is also very disturbing is that the attack on Mr Seng by a mental patient is likely to further alienate psychiatric patients from our society because people will believe that ALL mental patients are violent and trouble makers. This is not true. We must do all that we can to debunk this misconception otherwise we will create enclaves in our society. Let’s face it- Our society is still not ready to accept people with mental illness and I know for a fact that there are thousands of caregivers of mental patients out there who are suffering in silence. I get emails from parents & caregivers pleading to me for help and people have spoken to me about their own stricken loved ones suffering from mental illness when I give talks all over Singapore. So, I know.

Unfortunately, suffers of mental illness and their caregivers are often shrouded in shame. I am very open about my wife’s illness and because of this people come to me because I have the courage and conviction to speak on mental health issues in the press.

But people with mental illness can recover and even excel in life. My wife who has grappled with Schizophrenia for 33 years and also stricken with severe arthritis for the last 3 years is living proof of that. Today, with my unflagging support and love she has recovered and is an author of 4 books; 3 of which are best sellers.

What is urgently needed to tackle mental illness from spreading in Singapore is a holistic approach – Clinical perspective from psychiatrists, recovered patients’ perspective and resilient caregivers’ perspective. It has not been easy for me to change mindsets in Singapore, even among mental health providers. For years, only a clinical and patients perspective has been used. This must change if mental illness is to be tackled properly. If you are a caregiver for a mentally ill family member for the very first time, you will be “groping in the dark” because the symptoms are terrifying.

As I look at it, many mental patients relapse because they do not take their medications or refuse to see the doctors. Then there is no supervision at home or family members abandon them. This is why I have always emphasized that the structural support for caregivers in Singapore is very weak. The government should built halfway houses for the mentally ill and set up databases in the CCs/CDCs to register all mental patients with the view of offering help measures to this group of citizens on a long-term basis. (This was suggested in one of my letters to the press).

AWWA Centre for Caregivers in Singapore in Lorong Napiri should play a part in helping caregivers who look after family members who have mental illness. Sadly, hardly anything is being done for caregivers of the mentally ill.

There is a whole range of ideas/suggestions that I have proposed to the authorities through my letters to the press, but if nothing is done, then the problem of mental illness spreading and destroying lives will escalate further.

The government must be quick to respond to changing patterns and lifestyles and I am very sure that as more retrenchments hit Singaporeans after Chinese New Year, more people will fall into depression.

Are we prepared for this?

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