Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Welfare for caregivers of the mentally ill: Where’s the Singapore Heart?-An apeal to Dr Tony Tan, President of the Republic of Singapore

5th September 2012

Your Excellency, President Tony Tan,

The key messages relayed at the recent National Day Rally saw our leaders calling on Singaporeans to have a big heart and be gracious as the way forward to build a better Singapore.

The buzzword these days is “Inclusive”.  But how inclusive are we when it comes to the welfare and well-being of our caregivers? The Prime Minister has promised that his Government will build a better Singapore where everyone can call Singapore, home.  PM Lee also gave the assurance that no one will be left behind.  No one will be left behind?   I am not convinced and I’ll go to explain why I draw that conclusion.

Many caregivers of the mentally ill have been neglected and their welfare not looked into – for decades.

A good mental health care system must surely look into support for caregivers and this is clearly lacking in our mental health care system.

In a recent report in The New Paper, a mentally retarded girl who also has a personality disorder was given a second chance by the District Judge Shaifuddin Saruwan.  He did not choose to jail her, although he could have. The judge showed compassion and that’s the Singapore Spirit which I like to see. (See my proposed letter to The New Paper). The girl, “Mandy” tried to commit suicide 10 times.

I have full admiration for the girl’s father who is not very well educated, but gives unconditional love to his troubled daughter. It was heart-wrenching to read the TNP report and even more painful to see the photograph in which the young girl rode pillion rider on her doting dad’s motorcycle as they made their way to court. The father pleaded with the judge to help him save his daughter.  I was teary-eyed when the father and daughter were so happy that his daughter was not jailed that he took his daughter out to eat steak immediately after the judge showed compassion.

I am puzzled that people can read about such reports and “turn the other way”.   How would anyone feel if the girl who tried to end her life was their own daughter? Can we not feel the suffering of what the family must be going through? What the other caregivers are also struggling with?  Is this the Singapore Spirit, the Singapore Heart that we want to see, Dr Tony Tan?

The support system for caregivers is long overdue.  I remember vividly when my own wife who has battled schizophrenia for 40 years and suffers relapses; I could not get the support which I desperately needed.  It is the same with hundreds of caregivers. The focus is on the patient and the caregiver is completely forgotten. Is this what you call a good mental health care system? Little wonder that many caregivers themselves also fall into depression and suffer from fatigue and isolation.

Last weekend, I felt really bad about not being able to attend mass at my church. The reason: My head was spinning and I almost fainted.  I go to church because it is my Catholic faith that gives me strength to pull through this arduous journey. This is the price caregivers like us pay when there is absolutely no support for us.  Does anybody care?

Our mental health care system, Dr Tony Tan needs a major overhaul if it is to tackle the many cases of people suffering from mental illness and losing the will to live.

It is no exaggeration to say that our cries for help have fallen on deaf ears. MOH, MCYS, its partners and the mental health providers have done a great disservice to us by neglecting the needs of caregivers of psychiatric patients who do not chose to abandon their stricken loved ones.

I am fully aware that my relentless advocacy efforts to help the mentally ill and their caregivers and be a “voice” for this marginalized community is making some people uneasy, but frankly, it does not bother me one bit. If there are flaws in our system, we need to address it and find solutions. We don’t ignore it!

How many of our Members of Parliament are willing to speak out for the mentally ill and their caregivers. Aren’t they elected to serve the people who must surely include psychiatric patients and their families who are also citizens of this land?  Is mental illness such a taboo subject that it must not be discussed and talked about?

If we cannot learn to feel for the less fortunate in our midst, how can we ever call Singapore an inclusive society?

This is my proposed letter to the press:

Letter to TNP: Respite care and support vital for caregivers to better manage the mentally ill

I was heartbroken when I read the report “Help me save my daughter” (The New Paper, August 31).

I full sympathize with James, the doting father of the teenager daughter, Mandy who attempted suicide 10 times in a year.  Despite being completely stressed out in caring for Mandy who is mentally retarded with a personality disorder, the 58-year old dad continues to show love and kindness to his daughter. Such qualities are rare these days.  But like James, many caregivers in this group are not getting the vital support that they are in dire need of.

Suicides are on the rise.  Just a few days ago, a woman in her 30s threatened to jump off the top of the bell tower in the Church of the Nativity. 

Caregiving, especially for the mentally ill is an extremely demanding job and no one is equipped to do it alone. This is why it is crucial to have a good supporting system in place.  Caregivers also need respite care otherwise they become vulnerable into falling into depression and endangering their own health.  Respite care provides short-term breaks that can relieve stress, restore energy, and promote balance in your life.  But it is really a sad state of affairs that we don’t have all these in place in our mental health programmes.  

On a brighter note, I applaud the compassion shown by District Judge Shaifuddin Saruwan when he sentenced Mandy to one year probation on condition that she continues to seek treatment at IMH.  Indeed, we should treat the mentally ill, not jail them.

Besides a good caregiver supporting system and the much-needed respite care for caregivers, it will be useful if those who attempt suicide are sent for psychiatric rehabilitation as it will help those who suffer from stress, depression, suicidal tendencies and other mental health issues.

In the recent National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted hope, heart and home as the way forward to build a better Singapore.

So let’s have a heart and put in place concrete measures to support the mentally ill and their caregivers so that they can cling onto hope and be proud to call Singapore our home.



I would like to hear from you, President Tony Tan or your ministry officials.


Thank you for your time and for caring.


Raymond Anthony Fernando
P.S: For a true account of what my wife and I have gone through for 37 years, click onto this link to view the local TV show in which we appeared on the 19th July 2012.


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