Here’s how informal peer support groups like the Institute of Mental Hygiene initiative can help our collective mental health

Here’s how informal peer support groups like the Institute of Mental Hygiene initiative can help our collective mental health

How’s your mental health?

Editor: Sophie Hong

Image: Adam Niklewicz,
Natalia Lopes | Unsplash

When the two-month-long circuit breaker kicked into place, 28-year-old Farhana Ngieng decided to set up the Institute of Mental Hygiene*, a ground-up mental health initiative designed to get people comfortable with sharing some of their COVID-19-related fears and anxieties. Here, the training and development professional shares her thought process and findings from this informal pandemic peer support group.

During the circuit breaker, my friends and I checked on each other closely. Everyone was definitely feeling vulnerable, and that led to more intimate emotional sharing. We were delving into personal histories, current situations, and future hopes and dreams - that sort of thing. Often times I would find myself repeating, "Oh I have this friend who went through this, and here's what they did..."

And in response, there was a lot of "Wow, I would love to meet that person once this ends."

After noticing these patterns, I thought, since my friends clearly have a lot in common and will get on, why not just let them meet now?

I also understand from personal experience that group therapy and peer support groups can lead to feelings of normalisation and empowerment. The potential for healing, and validation of feelings and experiences, are high.

For most of my friends, they are already having private conversations with their own friends. That part of social support was mostly in place for them. However, as far as I was aware, no one I knew was having such conversations in groups.

It was of interest for me both socially and professionally. I wanted to sandbox something that could fill this gap. This could be a meaningful thing for my friends and me to do together to find relief from our shared inertia — I'm currently funemployed because the social enterprise that I was working for suffered unprecedented pandemic-induced losses.

Before I delve into the details of my ground-up mental health initiative, I want to preface this by saying that I'm not professionally trained in psychiatry or counselling. I have to be careful with how it's positioned, which is why it's called the Institute of Mental Hygiene.

I wanted to introduce mental hygiene as something that goes beyond regular exercise and mediation; something non-burdensome and easily compliable, something that we're already doing and holds the potential to transform ourselves if done differently, i.e. communication with the intention of compassion for all.

The Institute of Mental Hygiene initiative does not claim nor seek to replace professional help. We can't all be trained mental health aiders, but being human is pretty much the only non-negotiable condition of our existence. It's the only thing anyone of us has to do, whether we think we're doing it well or not. Hence, the recruitment message was this, "This is a human-to-human, human-for-human space".

My inherent belief is that everyone has the right to be seen, heard, and respected. And the reason why we aren't doing that is that we're not sure how we will be received. This is where tried-and-tested peer support techniques enter. They were composited from my research and published in the recruitment brochure. They were meant to be rules of engagement on how participants should conduct ourselves in the sessions, but more importantly, it's a form of assurance that these are the interactions they can expect.

Where my own professional and personal experiences come in was to firstly, design a gentle self-discovery process that doesn't resemble learning or mental health help. Secondly, it's to set up an infrastructure where it's safe and fertile for this process to happen for all. For subject matter integrity, I also consulted friends who work in mental health services for advice.

The weekly one-and-a-half-hour Google Hangout sessions were themed, with guided prompts. The themes include family, self, romance, and human connections. This mechanism guides the scope of sharing and allows everyone to share their experiences that extend beyond the circuit breaker. What it yielded was incredibly rich social-emotional information about ourselves and others. One can honour their own experiences while discovering and assimilating new ways to approach similar situations through the stories of others.

I really lucked out with this cycle of participants. All were very self-regulating, open, and respectful. They were also really humorous and great sports. If they found the sessions safe and enjoyable, it was all their own work.

Here are some of my key takeaways from running the Institute of Mental Hygiene initiative:

  1. Everyone has great stories that deserve a great audience
  2. The world is a whimsical place, and life is not very different. Recognise that things are sometimes, beyond our control
  3. Personally, I was both elevated and ministered by those that I intended to help. If only people knew their potential to change someone's life with just one small gesture and one kind word

*While the name of this initiative is a cheeky reference to the Institute of Mental Health Singapore, it is not affiliated.

To be updated on future sessions, join the Institute of Mental Hygiene's Facebook group here.

For workshop facilitation and training development using the Institute of Mental Hygiene's framework, click here.

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