Thursday, May 5, 2011

Questions on support mechanism for caregivers of the mentally ill always go unanswered: A plea to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

Our Prime Minister has assured all Singaporeans that every segment of our society will be taken care of. But I am still not convinced, given the lack of support that people with mental illness and their caregivers face everyday in their lives.

As a run up to the General Elections 2011, The New Paper ran a series of interviews with the Cabinet Ministers. Readers were invited to query the Cabinet Ministers on a whole range of issues affecting their lives. This was for the series, “ASK THE MINISTER”. More than 2 weeks ago, I posed a question to the MCYS Minister, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan through The New Paper on the support system which caregivers like myself desperately need.

This was my question to Dr Vivian Balakrishnan:

“People with mental illness and their caregivers face huge challenges in their lives: stigma, financial and social support, employability, housing difficulties, crisis intervention and high rate of relapses. Yet the support structure for these marginalized citizens here in Singapore is very weak. Caregivers who are taking care of their loved ones stricken with mental illness often suffer burnout, as I have. What plans do you have to improve the support mechanism for caregivers of the mentally ill so that they can lead a much easier life, given that we make a lot of sacrifices?”

The journalist, one Ms Tay Shian received it and called me to confirm my age & some other details. As expected, my question went unplublished and unanswered. Even the more than the 100 letters that I have written to the press pleading for support for the mentally ill and their caregivers go unanswered. The MCYS Minister answered all other questions, but conveniently chose not to address mine. Why is this so?

Our suicide rates have gone up, and will continue to go up. If you read today's New Paper, you will read yet another report of how a lady wanted to commit suicide because of a failed relationship.

In yesterday's Straits Times Forum Page (ST, Wed 4th May 2011), a caregiver, Madam J Bhaskaran is disturbed by the lack of support in securing help for her stricken relative. Her letter, “In a bind over care for mentally disabled sibling”, strikes a chord with me.

I am at wits end trying to secure support for my beloved wife, Doris whom I love so dearly. Though the journey in taking care of her all by myself is extremely arduous and painful, I have not chosen to given up on her. But it will make my journey so much easier if the Singapore Government gives us the vital support that we so badly need.

In Parliament, a few months ago, Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan replied to a suggestion by an MP - I believe it was Assoc Prof Fatimah Lateef, with regards to a caregivers allowance for people like us. I did in fact raise this issue to the press prior to what the MP suggested. My suggestion, as usual went unanswered. The replied given by Mr Khaw in Parliament to MP Assoc Prof Fatimah Lateef's suggestion was highly insensitive and very hurtful. He said that “giving a caregivers allowance will cheapen the sacrifices caregivers make.”

So, I would ask the Health Minister in what way does giving a caregiver allowance cheapen the caregiver journey? I, like many other caregivers, have made huge sacrifices in looking after our stricken ones. I gave my $2,400 job 9 years ago so that I can give love and care to my wife 24/7. She has 7 chronic illnesses and is at fall risks because of her advanced arthritis condition. In any event, providing such an allowance will raise caregiving to a higher level because many caregivers cannot take the stress of caring for their stricken ones and they choose to place them in homes or put them in IMH. So, let's be sensitive to the feelings of caregivers like us who are prepared to walk the journey despite facing huge adversities in our lonely lives.

My wife who has battled schizophrenia for 40 years has suffered a serious relapse of her mental illness and I am made to suffer all alone. The relapse was triggered by the immense pain she has been enduring from her advanced arthritis condition and due to the lack of support that she so badly needs. The costs is very high: emotional, physical and financial. This is now her 12th relapse.

Doris has multiple chronic illnesses and you can read about it further on my blog. One person that really cared for her is her psychiatrist, Dr Eu, Senior Consultant at IMH. He went out of his way and made special arrangements to see my wife - at the 11th hour. Dr Eu felt my pain as he saw me break down and try to hide my tears. He came out of his clinic and helped me to walk my wife into his room because my wife was feeling giddy and her knees are weak. I was deeply touched by his compassion for another human being.

Dr Eu is trying her on a new drug - “QUETIAPINE 100MG”. Will it work? I really don't know. But I hope so, otherwise hospitalization is inevitable. My wife is extremely frightened and cannot be left alone until she is stabilized. She is like a frightened rabbit. It is extremely pitiful to see her in that condition. Does the Singapore Government understand what I am, and have gone through, bearing in mind that for 37 years I have travelled this journey all alone?

I have seen and read reports of Cabinet Ministers crying publicly: Lim Boon Heng, Lim Swee Say, and most recently, Khaw Boon Wan. But do you all understand that for 37 years I have on so many occasions shed tears and cried myself to sleep as I see my wife suffer horrifically from the ravages of schizophrenia?

I hope that my candid and true life story will inspire, motivate and touch you, because if it does not, than I don't know what will. To build a first class Singapore Government, surely our marginalised communities must find a place in our society.

And as Our Archbishop, Nicholas Chia rightly points out in his pastoral letter to Catholics on the coming GE, “ We must also ensure that the poor, the elderly and the marginalised in our society are cared for .”

Thank you.


Raymond Anthony Fernando

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