Saturday, November 19, 2011

Do you have a history of mental illness?

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.  So throw off the bowlines.  Sail away from the safe harbour.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.”

- Mark Twain -

The captioned words above of Mark Twain had long ago set me thinking as to whether I should  take the road less travelled and become a voice for the thousands out there who are struggling with the stresses of life.  I brushed away this thought, only to see it resurrected again during my journey as a caregiver to my wife, Doris who had to struggle with mental illness amongst other health ailments.

For more than 3 decades, I have witnessed the blatant discrimination that sufferers of mental illness face every day in their lonely lives.  Out of my compassion for psychiatric patients and their caregivers, I decided in 2004 to bring to light the plight of these marginalised citizens through advocacy.  It is never easy being a mental health activist – it is a thankless job that many would not do.  There is also an uneasiness that deters people from speaking out on social issues.  In the case of mental illness, this uneasiness is even greater.  Patients and caregivers would rather suffer in silence than speak out openly about their struggles.  They do not want to be identified with the illness that carries a nagging social stigma.

Whilst many people support my advocacy work, I know there are some people who are “uncomfortable” when I raised mental issues in the press or on television and radio.  Some have unkindly resorted to name calling in an attempt to demoralize and humiliate me.

But given the growing number of people - both foreigners and Singaporeans who have lost the will to live and are struggling to cope with mental illness, I fervently believe that we cannot sweep the problems of mental health issues and suicides under the carpet. And I remain committed to being a voice for the “voiceless.”

Passing of champion for disabled

I am shocked and deeply saddened to read in the Straits Times that Miss Nancy Chia, 60 who was the former President and most recently, the honorary secretary of the Handicaps Welfare Association (HWA) was found dead in her car on Wednesday- 16th November 2011 (“Champion for disabled found dead in her car”, ST Nov 18).  I know Nancy did a lot of hard work because my wife is a member of HWA and I’ve spoken to her a few times.  Nancy had a lot of passion in her work, and my wife and I would like to express our deepest condolences to her family. 

Serious social problems

There have been many reports in the press about people losing their tempers, the most recent ones being (a) the case in which a local banker was beaten up by a Caucasian over a booking of a taxi.  (b) In another TNP (The New Paper) report, (“They wanted to beat us,” Nov 17), another case of anger erupts.  We read of the “high drama after a road collision resulted in 20 people chasing occupants of a car involved.”

Neighbours are quarreling and cannot get along with each other- two of one whom ended up in a fight and got arrested by the police (TNP, Nov 18- “Fighting over potted plants”).

People here are not able to manage their anger, divorces are going up and poor boy-girl relationships are causing a lot of problems with some hitting out at each other on social media platforms. Financial calamity is hitting many as gambling and money issues become another real problem.  As crowds on the MRT and public places swell, people are becoming agitated and losing their cool easily.

Media’s role

The media has to raise social issues so that policy makers sit down and fine tune their policies that can help everyone on this tiny island to live, work and play in a happy, cohesive and conducive environment.

Noise pollution

There has been much unhappiness over noise pollution affecting the lives of many Singaporeans. Couple of months ago, several people voiced their displeasure over the endless noise that were affecting their rest. One suggestion from a Straits Times reader made a lot of sense. He said we should follow the Hong Kong method and only allow construction work or renovation to be carried out from morning at around 9am and end off at 12noon or 1pm. It is a practical suggestion, and I fully support his idea.

I now reproduce the letter which I wrote to the press on noise pollution.

“S'pore's becoming too noisy”

The most serious problem created by sound pollution is the impact on our health

Letter from Raymond Anthony Fernando

(TODAY Newspaper on Monday 21st Jan 2011)

I REFER to the letter, "Can't sleep for the MRT clatter (Jan 27), and share Tan Lye Chye's sentiments.

In our fast-paced lives, our homes should be a place where we can relax and have peace of mind. Yet, this is not possible in the estate where we live in Ang Mo Kio because all the year round, there is noise pollution almost seven days a week.

Before residents can fully recover from two years of noise from the Lift Upgrading Programme, we will now have to bear with more noise pollution and inconvenience from the impending upgrading inside our flats, with the changing of pipes, doors and toilets.

I will then have to search for alternative accommodation as my wife, who is coping with schizophrenia, cannot bear excessive noise. Her mobility is also severely impaired because of arthritis.

Shouldn't the HDB show some empathy and provide us with affordable alternative accommodation if they insist on carrying out such works? Should not there be consideration shown to the sick and those who are convalescing at home?

Funeral wakes are carried out almost every month opposite our block and the chanting can last as late as 11pm over three to four days. Every week, the irritating noise of the blower used to remove the cut grass disrupts the quiet we so badly need at the close of the week.

There is also excessive noise when clan associations regularly carry out their activities late in the night, and this sometimes stretches for a week. In the middle of the night, the beating of the drums does not allow anyone a wink of sleep.

Karaoke singing in HDB flats should not be encouraged. To my left, a couple sings at the top at their voices every weekend, sometimes past 1am. Above my flat, another family also engages in this activity with total disregard for residents.

The most serious problem created by sound pollution is the impact it has on our health. Besides disrupting sleep, noise pollution has also been linked with stress, heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke.

As I have to write for a living, I have no choice but work in the wee hours. Doesn't a caregiver also need rest? Little wonder I have suffered burnout countless times.

Raymond Anthony Fernando

While it is necessary to upgrade and redesign our landscape and city, let us be mindful that our citizens need to have sufficient rest; given that many work long and taxing hours. They also need to spend quality time with their families.

All these issues need to be addressed and tackled - swiftly.

Mental illness declaration

Just go take a look at any Government job application form and you will find a clause there which requires the applicant to declare if he/she has a history of mental illness.   Why is this requirement still in place? This clause handed down since the colonial time is clearly outdated, and has to be removed if we want to give equal opportunity for all Singaporeans to secure jobs and to encourage treatment if a person is going through depression or other types of mental illness, because the illness is treatable.  If the Government takes the lead, the private sector will most likely follow suit. I have raised this matter in the press, but no one wants to give a reply.

In The New Paper (TNP) on Thursday, 17th November 2011, a maid plunged 15 storeys from her employers flat because she was depressed. Her employers tried to save her, but could not do so because she was out of control.

This begs the question:  Are foreigners who come to work in Singapore screened for mental health issues?

Whether we like it or not, mental illness is becoming a BIG problem. We cannot avoid it, but we must find quick and sustainable solutions to tackle suicides, mental illness and stress related problems.


I urge the Government to consider the following:

( a) Set up a task force at a national level to tackle suicide, mental illness issues and stress –related problems. I am emphasizing national level because all these problems are happening in the heartlands. So the CDCs must also play an active role and come on board this recommended national task force committee. 

(b) Members of Parliament (MPs) need to raise the plight of the mentally ill and their caregivers in parliament.  A few years ago, I wrote to several MPs, pleading with them raise our plight, but none, including those in the opposition wanted to take this matter up. One told me, “Oh, I will have to think about it,” and she never did anything.” Another told me, “I am too stressed.” Others choose to ignore my plea.   Yet aren’t MPs elected by the people, supposed to serve the people - ALL people.

( c ) Reach out far and wide to get people to better understand mental health issues. Even doctors outside IMH need to learn about mental health because a fragile mind needs extra care and support.  A troubled mind can easily snap if circumstances are not conducive.  And I can give clear insights into this.

Why is mental illness such a taboo subject that it does not merit serious discussion and debate?  In 2006, I wrote a letter to the Straits Times and cautioned that depression was going to become a major cause of disability- worldwide. How many people believed me?  Look at the situation today.

Shouldn’t we be proactive instead of reactive?
Raymond Anthony Fernando

The writer is an advocate for the mentally ill and runs a website & 2 blogs –

 He is also the author of 13 books. His wife, Doris who has battled schizophrenia for 40 years is also an author – 6 books to her name.  
The article is also available on The Online Citizen

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