Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Our attitudes towards mental illness need treatment

(Unpublished - Straits Times, Feb 18, 2009)

I read with interest Radha Basu’s article ‘Dealing with devils in the mind’ (ST, Feb 18, 2009).

I applaud the efforts put in by the correspondent as well as her interviewee Dr Ang Yong Guan in raising awareness on mental illness and fighting its stigmatism in Singapore.

The public raising of awareness, education and dialogue will either be insufficient or in vain if the same efforts are not made at the level of the government, employers and other organisational and administrative processes.

The change may be very slow given we have developed and encased ourselves within a rigid rhetoric of meritocracy.

Such a system and mindset are unaccommodating, unsympathetic and unhelpful towards persons who suffer from mental illness.

It is in our culture and in our institutions that the stigmatism of mental illness continues to persist.

Most of us are into the layman groupthink that depression, for example, is associated with an inferior state of mind and can be corrected with a change in mindset.

This results in the isolation of the illness to the individual.

In the process, we think not about the environment and society, both of which are depoliticised and left unquestioned and unchanged.

Most patients and sufferers feel the stigma and anxiety of disclosure or discussion of mental illness because, apart from lack of social empathy and ridicule, they fear they may not get equal treatment or equal opportunity in areas such as employment, for instance.

The fear of stigma and informal negative social sanctions also prevents individuals suffering from depression to seek help from medical and psychiatric professionals.

This phenomenon also serves to reinforce gender stereotypes, where men are assumed be “mentally stronger” and should be “strong” enough to weather depression, or that women are seen to be “naturally” emotional and susceptible to mental illnesses.

Such stereotypes further fuel discrimination based on gender.

It is interesting that the article pointed out that in other countries, there are people who are not ashamed to seek help.

We, as Singaporeans, should see that shame is not what we inherent possess, but what is shoved down our throats.

As we improve our medical technologies, we should also improve our attitudes.

A little change in attitude in all of us is a small step.

Surely a nation that tries to exercise greater graciousness can exercise a little more compassion and empathy.

Ho Chi Sam

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