It was a Saturday afternoon. I was sweating buckets walking down the bustling and colourful Haji Lane, known for its eclectic mix of vintage and contemporary artisan shops, encompassing all things quaint and quirky.
But I wasn’t perspiring profusely because of the sweltering heat from the afternoon sun, or the thick tropical humidity.
It was my anxiety.
As I stood in the middle of the lane, with stiff arms and an even stiffer smile, I felt nervous and frankly, painfully inadequate.
The endless throng of people passing by – locals and tourists alike — were staring, alternating between me and the white piece of paper that I was holding up in front of me. On it, was a handwritten statement that revealed my diagnosis of depression and anxiety.
Were they judging me? Do I look weird? I am so lousy at this!! Should’ve watched Top Model.
But nerves soon gave way to purpose as I fought against my anxiety and insecurities to focus on why I’m doing this and what I stood for — recovery.
I got to know some members of the team (see pic below): Shiya [SY], Michelle [M], Nisha [N] and Cheryl [C].
Right from the get-go, I could tell that these girls were pretty serious about their campaign. Once our work was done, I took the chance to understand more.
Why See The Full Picture, and what is its purpose?
[C]: It is a campaign targeted towards NUS students, with the aim of getting them to realise that nobody is one-dimensional. There’s always more than one side to a person. Instead of defining people with mental health illnesses by their disorders alone, we hope that our target audience will widen their perspective, and see those with mental illnesses as functional, holistic individuals who are really, just like anybody else.
[SY]: Often, we are too quick to judge and have the tendency to label people. We hope to reduce mental health stigma and promote acceptance within our society by helping the public to understand the complete picture or full story of individuals with mental health. Only by realising that persons with mental illness are more than their medical conditions, can they then accept them and change their mindsets.
[M]: To convey the message that mental illness should not be the only defining feature of a person; that whilst the illness may be debilitating, one can nevertheless be functional and productive.
[N]: I would say the main purpose of the event is to get the NUS community thinking about the predominantly negative connotations we associate with mental illness, and challenge these presumptions. By taking sharing a wider perspective, we see how the little details that make up a person come together to form one big picture. This is when we can truly appreciate another person’s wholesomeness and beauty despite all their little imperfections.
What were the main challenges in preparing for this event?
[SY]: Stigma of mental illness is a rather sensitive topic. It is hard to come up with slogans, games and basically ideas, as we have to be very sensitive about the words we use, as well as ideas associated with the campaign as we would not want to perpetuate stereotypes or fuel misunderstandings amongst the public.
[C]: I guess as with any other event, logistics! For many of us on the team, this is our first marketing campaign. As such, we don’t have any prior experience we can draw on in terms of managing a large-scale (to us!) event. The sheer size and detail of logistics was overwhelming. But the team is working very hard, and we’re proud that we managed to come through!
[M]: Most of us are Year 4 undergraduates so it was hard to juggle school work and prepping for the event because alot of time had to be devoted to sourcing for materials and brainstorming for ideas. Also, it was hard to get people struggling with mental illness to come out in the open and share their stories — shows how prevalent the stigma is!
Do you personally know of someone who suffers from mental illness?
[SY]: My mum has depression and I feel that it played a part in building my passion for psychology. I was not aware of the stigma in mental illness until very much later since I grew up knowing her condition and have always seen it as something very normal (pretty much like having a fever). She is still a good mother and plays important role in my growing up process. It doesn’t take much to realise that mental illness does not define someone, pretty much like how a physical condition doesn’t.
[C]: I have a friend who suffers from anxiety disorder. However, due to stigma, she has felt uncomfortable sharing it with friends and family, even me. Although she is in the recovery phase and has not had an episode for quite some time, she is still hesitant to share her experiences.
[N]: Yes I do know a few friends with mental illness. And if they never told me about their conditions, I wouldn’t have known. I’ve always seen them as ordinary everyday individuals, like myself. They have made extraordinary strides in their lives and display a kind of quiet mental strength that is inspiring yet humbling. We enjoy doing the same activities together, we share the same passions and interests, we all have dreams and ambitions. And most importantly, there are people who stay by them through thick and thin, and love them for who they are. I think as humans we’re all capable of that. Sometimes we just need a nudge to look beyond the surface, look beyond the majority status of another and gain insight on their life experiences and character strengths. Then, you would truly appreciate them for what they are as a person and not as a walking label.
What sort of improvements do you aspire to see in the Singapore mental health system?
[C]: Reduced stigma towards people with mental health illness. Even today, there are some that don’t believe mental disorders are real. They think that it’s a sign of weak will, or that they’re just “faking” their illness in order to get out of work. But mental illnesses are a very real part of life. It may not affect everyone, but for those few individuals, it can be challenging to live with a mental illness.
[SY]: I hope mental healthcare could be made more accessible to people who need the help without the hefty medical fees or having to travel long distances to see a mental health professional. Basically, these shouldn’t be limiting factors to why people resist treatment, and these factors could be definitely removed or minimised.
[M]: To spur changes in workplace and institutional policies — that mental illness is recognised as a real issue, much like physiological illness. It is one thing to have the proper mental health infrastructure in place, it is another to ensure they are utilised.
[N]: I hope to see the government introduce a fair employment policy with regards to the hiring of people with mental illness. In the US, job-seeking candidates are not required to declare their history of mental illness in job application forms, and this is a step that has aided in the dramatic reduction of mental illness stigma in their society.
If there is just one thing you hope to achieve through this campaign – what would it be?
[N]: To replace negative stereotypes with a more accurate and positive message: that persons with mental illnesses are more than their conditions. Through such self-reflection, one’s own bias and stereotypes of persons with mental illness can be reduced.
[SY]: We hope to encourage the public not to be too quick to judge, and always try to know the full picture/complete story before judging someone with regards to mental illness.
[M]: Less stigma and more acceptance towards those suffering from mental illness. Certain words (labels) or actions (i.e. shunning) could be hurtful to persons with mental illness. Hopefully more people can leave the campaign with the message to look beyond a person’s mental illness and appreciate him for who “he is “, rather than what “he has”.
[C]: We hope that people will become more accepting of those with mental illnesses, and that they see them in a whole new light. Instead of judging them solely based on their mental illnesses, we want our audience to realise that people with mental illnesses are functional individuals with the same hobbies, interests, and roles as everyday Singaporeans.
I was in good company that day, and I’m truly heartened by their efforts.
Indeed, let’s work towards a holistic understanding of mental health — it starts by sharing our stories today.
See The Full Picture is held at the National University of Singapore, Central Forum, from 8-10 October 2014.