While I agree that many people – youths included, have the tendency to give unfair labels to persons struggling with mental health issues – ‘Crazy, weird, scary’: Survey unveils negative labels youths associate with mental illness (March 12, TODAY newspaper), it’s just as important, if not more important, that the media is sensitive to the mentally ill and her caregivers.
Next month, April 17 will mark the 4th year that my late wife, Doris Lau, who battled schizophrenia for 44 long years has passed on. Doris recovered from the illness and went on to author 8 successful books. She was brave enough to allow me to tell her life struggle with the illness in the media, with one goal: To de-stigmatise mental illness and give a ray of hope to these marginalised citizens Does she not have economical value?
The media has the ability to sway people’s thinking, so it has to present different perspective on this delicate subject. Headlines which captures the mentally ill in bad light should never be allowed, and I would like the ministers in the information ministries and health to advice and counsel journalists to be mindful of what they put out. And to give me a reply because I am going public on this. It’s an irony that while the Ministry of Health is doing its utmost to eradicate discrimination and stigma, the media companies like Today newspaper is doing the opposite.
Does Today newspaper fully understand that labelling and unfair criticism of patients trying to cope with mental illness is due to lack of education on mental illness. Bottom line: People fear what they don’t understand.
The truth of the matter is that many people – young and old who have sought treatment are on the road to recovery, with some of them having the courage to become staunch advocates. Advocacy will not only create awareness of these often not-talked about issues, but can be instrumental in changing mindsets.
Some years back, a lady friend told me that in a game show on a TV programme in America, people were asked to name secrets, which they would be too shameful to reveal or talk about. They were given a list of three secrets to choose from: Taking drugs on the sly, robbing people and having a mental illness. Surprisingly, most people chose having a mental illness as the most shameful thing to reveal. So, I am not at all surprised that people feel ashamed to have a mental illness.
Generally, there is a lack of education among Asians on mental illness and most of them will not admit that they are afflicted with the illness. This unwillingness to be associated with mental illness is perhaps, understandable given that there is so much social stigma within the community towards mental illness.
Perhaps the culprit behind the happy faces of those suffering from depression or other types of mental illness is FEAR. Due to fear, people have been suppressing their own unhappiness, emotional pain, worries and sorrow. And due to the lack of support from those whom they are in close contact with, be it family, office colleagues or even employers, people struggling with mental illness in this negative environment tend to have very low and damaging self-esteem. They fear that they are not good enough to move on in life. They suffer from low self-confidence and left unchecked can lead to dire consequences.
Trapped in these circumstances, the mentally ill feel unworthy and become increasingly sensitive to people’s comments and language. Fear causes them to bottle up their feelings and with no one to give them the much-needed emotional support, their mental health suffers. When there is no avenue for them to pour out their pent-up emotions, the bubble that is growing inside of them bursts. In worse case scenarios, they lose the will to live.
Dealing with people with depression and those with other types of mental illnesses requires a lot of understanding, patience and compassion. These virtues are needed to help people with depression unlock the emotional pain in their hearts and if they are able to do so with love and understanding at an early stage, then they will be able to move on in life and contribute to their well-being, those around them and to society.
Some of the symptoms of schizophrenia are hallucinations, depression and also fear. When fear overpowers them, patients who default on their medications may believe that people are trying to harm them, and thus become defensive.
The Institute of Mental Health and some mental health VWOs has been working very hard to de-stigmatise mental illness through public education – taking a holistic approach by bringing in doctors, patients and caregivers to present real-life situations and coping skills which can help a great deal to enlighten the public and eventually remove the stigma that plagues the mentally ill. There are also books that speaks of amazing recovery of patients with mental illness.
I encourage one and all to be involved in these matters as everyone of us has a one percent chance of getting the illness, at some point in our lives.
Last, but not least, I want an assurance from the Singapore government that such negative reports will become a thing of the past – more so when efforts are being given by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat that his goal and that of the government is to build a caring and inclusive society.
So, let’s walk the talk, shall we?
RAYMOND ANTHONY FERNANDO