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Mental health in Singapore: Young creatives discuss self-care, self-love and self-awareness

Mental health in Singapore: Young creatives discuss self-care, self-love and self-awareness

Mind games

Editor: Aravin Sandran


Image: Rachel Theodora Ding
Image: The .Wavs (2018) Amanda Tan (Empyreal)

To coincide with World Mental Health Day on 10th October, we asked young creatives to share their thoughts on what the 'gram is doing to our wellbeing and the changes they would like to see in Singapore's mental health system — here’s what they had to say

Subhas Nair is an independent hip-hop artist who uses his music and lyricism to share his cultural commentary and engage with people from all walks of life. His debut mixtape, Man on a Mission, was released in January 2018. He is currently working on visuals for his debut album, Not A Public Assembly, which tackles a range of socio-political issues in Singapore.

On using social media without losing our goddamn minds: Nothing is real, especially on social media, but all our minds are already lost anyway. The rule of engagement I have on social media or on the internet is simple: I use it as a platform to learn and keep my finger on the pulse. At the same time, it is important to be a discerning consumer and question everything. I follow people who inspire me, and will not hesitate to block out noise on social media. 

Advice to other young creatives: Honour your emotions. Let yourselves feel. Tell your truth in your work. At the same time, find your outlet. I didn't even know therapy was a thing until college, so I know the value of a good friend and of being a good friend. Talk to others. Listen to others. Take care of one another. Also, vicarious trauma is real so make sure you always check in with yourself and those around you. This message is to young people in general  not just creatives. Everyone is creative in their own ways. There is poetry in everything we do.

What has helped me when I was undergoing a mental crisis: Earl Sweatshirt, my friends Nik and Will, Come Swim by Kristen Stewart, Death Cab for Cutie, typing long messages then deleting them, running for hours, crying in the shower, reading philosophy to know I am not alone, and writing obsessively until my pen runs out of ink.

Resources/services for mental health I would like to see in Singapore: I would like to see the government acknowledge and invest the requisite resources towards the mental health of those at the margins of society: trans people, migrant workers and homeless people. We can start by not making people feel like foreigners and refugees in their own country. Give them the basic human right to a fair living wage, a roof over their heads and equal employment opportunities. Not having these things f**k with your mental health. If we are talking about the arts, stop censoring our shit. These bureaucratic loopholes that so many artists have to jump through to put out their work take a toll on us. Instead, work with us. Make space for our voices and let us speak our truths to power.

On 'tortured genius'  the correlation between creativity and mental illness: My music is not my therapy. It is a medium to pen my reality. It helps me keep my sanity in a place like this. I do still need therapy, and opening up to someone about what is going on in my head has been very helpful. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or even just feeling alone, talk to someone. Help is usually not that far away. Therapy is not a bad word. It's better to be alive and feel than dead.

Berny Tan is a Singaporean artist, curator, writer and occasional designer. Her art practice interweaves embroidery, drawing, installation, graphic design and writing — fundamentally exploring the tensions in her attempts to systematise intangible, emotional experiences.

On using social media without losing our goddamn minds: Over the years, I've found that I've reduced the amount that I share online, or learnt to frame, filter and encode the content that I create or share. As I shape my own practice, I also shape how I construct my (semi-)professional identity online. I try not to share too much personal information and thoughts these days, focusing instead on representing my work, and to a certain extent the way I see the world around me, which can, in a sense, give some context for my practice. As a visual artist and an over-thinker, I can be very conscious of the image I project on social media. On the other hand, I do try to treat it with a degree of humour and detachment. If I can't, then I have to recognise and deal with that toxicity  not just identifying toxic people on my feed, but also assessing my own toxic behaviours. Mute, block, unfollow, even delete Instagram if you ever need to  you always have the option to disengage.

One poem that has helped me when I was undergoing a mental crisis: There are so many books, songs, movies, and poems that have helped me in some small way or another over the years. Sometimes it's just a matter of serendipity  recently someone who saw my work in an exhibition mentioned a poem called 'The Decision' by Jane Hirshfield. Reading this poem, combined with a few other factors, helped me do something painful but necessary that I had been avoiding for a very long time, though that avoidance itself was, in fact, a kind of prolonged mental crisis.

Resources/services for mental health I would like to see in Singapore: I have been fortunate enough to be able to afford therapy, but I don't have any personal experience with psychologists or psychiatrists. It will be wonderful for more people to have access to good, empathetic therapists and counsellors at a subsidised rate. Everyone can benefit from therapy at some point, even if they do not have a mental illness. It allows you to build self-awareness and recognise how you could treat yourself and others in healthier ways.

On 'tortured genius'  the correlation between creativity and mental illness: I can only speak for myself: when I create out of my destructive emotions, it can be very cathartic, and a big part of my practice sits precisely in that overlap between the therapeutic and the torturous. However, I've done something quite dangerous over the years, which is to use the creative act as an excuse to not deal with the root of my trauma, even sometimes to justify my pain or minimise its impact on me ("it's okay that it hurts as long as I can make good art about it"). My therapist once told me that it is fine to channel my anxieties into my art  the question is how I can disengage from that pain outside of the creative act. That's something that I'm still contemplating and navigating. 

Racy Lim is currently the Editor-in-Chief of SAND, a socially conscious publication merging culture with contemporary art, design and music. She also co-curated 'Deepest Blue' at Gillman Barracks, an exhibition that hoped to show a continuity and normalcy about mental health struggles.

On using social media without losing our goddamn minds: Sometime last year, looking at my Instagram feed made me panicky constantly. Scrolling down and having to look through personal memories — those I still love, and the ones I grew out of, took a toll. I didn't enjoy having very personal photos and captions out in public. My process of decluttering saw me creating a brand new page, and setting the other one private to serve as an archive of thoughts. I choose to see Instagram as a platform for creatives to empower one another, and so before making anything public these days, it's important that I question whether it is beneficial to another person or if it would make a difference.

Advice to other young creatives: Power through. Allow yourself to experiment. Channel honesty and compassion. Our minds hold great power and how we think, feel or react is part of the bigger human experience.

Resources/services for mental health I would like to see in Singapore: I'd like more extensive research on mental health to be made accessible to the public. Most conversations and campaigns we have today can be invasive and misleading. All too often focus is placed on identifying the depressed instead of getting people to understand the psychology of mental health. As a writer and creative invested in building digital and physical platforms to encourage a wider range of expression, I'd like to see more exhibitions, workshops, talks and artist-led events that move away from making case studies out of people.

Shaf Amis'aabudin is co-founder of streetwear label Mash-Up. He also organises Sunset Pasar, a pop-up fashion and lifestyle flea market since 2015.

On using social media without losing our goddamn minds: One has to be secure enough as an individual to understand that what people portray online versus their real life could be vastly different. When I was in Japan, I went to a club and met the 'It' girl of that time and I thought it was going to be a 'larger than life' experience but I ended up feeling "eh, like that only?" Look into the mirror. What you think of yourself is far more important than what society perceives you to be. Be kind to yourself and others around you.

What I do when I am undergoing a mental crisis: On days I feel less than usual, I go for a walk, cycle at the beach or watch Friends on Netflix. Nothing beats nature and humour.

Advice to other young creatives: Have someone to talk it out with, or write it down. Work is just work and work never ends, so live a little or live a whole lot because why not? Invest in yourself, friendships and relationships, because when it all ends, those are the ones that will matter most.

Resources/services for mental health I would like to see in Singapore:
 I would want insurance policies to cover mental illness just as much as it covers physical illness because it is just as important.

On 'tortured genius' 
 the correlation between creativity and mental illness: Mental illness does us harm no matter what. We should not be glorifying the belief that great art can only come from great pain.
Souher Wahba co-runs Your Local Newsstand, a small independent publisher in Singapore that specialises in photography zines.

On using social media without losing our goddamn minds: Don't take it all too seriously, as it shouldn't validate you as an individual. When you do, it'll take control over your life. I am a traditionalist  I don't have a personal Instagram or Facebook account. However, social media is essential for my work but I don't mix it with my personal life.

One film that has helped me when I was undergoing a mental crisis: Samsara, the film by Ron Fricke, takes me on a mind-adjusting trip through time, space and culture.  

Advice to other young creatives: Unplug and unwind for a few days if necessary. Give yourself some time to ease out when you're feeling overwhelmed before it blows out of proportion. It's essential to put your mental health first.

Resources/services for mental health I would like to see in Singapore: Campaigns  we need to eliminate the stigma and negative perceptions surrounding mental health and help-seeking. Affordable healthcare services  inpatient, outpatient services are expensive. Consistency  mental health issues are such a personal matter that there is a need for different pathways. What might work for one person might not work for another. I can never get an appointment with the same doctor or therapist from one week to the next. The waiting lists for therapy are long and even then, you are often referred to something that you have either already done or something that did not work for you.

On 'tortured genius'  the correlation between creativity and mental illness: There are plenty of geniuses who are not mentally ill, and there are plenty of mentally ill people who aren't geniuses. I feel social conformity might affect one's health. In essence, our inner demons are ultimately what does us harm. 

Joella Qingyi Kiu is is an art historian, writer and independent curator based in Singapore. She manages Object Lessons Space, a virtual platform that documents conversations with artists, creatives, curators and writers about art objects. She also co-curated 'The Deepest Blue' at Gillman Barracks, an exhibition that hoped to show a continuity and normalcy about mental health struggles.

On using social media without losing our goddamn minds: I personally use social media as a place of inspiration. At the same time, it's important to know when social media doesn't help with where you're at in life. Everything in moderation.

One piece of art that has helped me when I was undergoing a mental crisisClaude Debussy, Rêverie

Advice to other young creatives: Surround yourself with people who love you and genuinely care, and do not push them away. Allow yourself time to step back, breathe and regroup. Take all the time you need, and try as hard as you can to be kind to yourself.

Resources/services for mental health I would like to see in Singapore: To be honest, an app that looks at wellness as a whole would be helpful. The app could have a daily check-in portion where someone could just quickly note how they're dealing with the day, and what they're up to. It could have an in-built counselling chat system, where someone could reach out for help without having to step out of the house  something that some might not want to do when they are going through a rough patch. The app could also feature compiled list of therapists and psychologists in Singapore. The app could also include simple breathing exercises and meditative guides. This would help millennials, in particular, get the help that they need when they need it. It's also important that it's all in one place, so people can just log in to track their personal wellbeing instead of having to go through page after page on Google trying to get advice. 

On 'tortured genius'  the correlation between creativity and mental illness: Romanticising mental struggles really undercuts the reality of dealing with such matters. Saying that an artist should have to be tormented in order to be creative - or vice versa - is insensitive and it kills people from the inside out.
Shivram Gopinath’s work has been heard at the SWF, Singapore Heritage Fest, Spore Art Salon, Lit Up Festival and more. He is the author of I Know You’re Upset, a photo-poetry book co-created with photographer Panagiotis Kotsidas. Shivram teaches spoken word at the Haque Centre of Acting and Creativity, curates and runs UltraSuperNew Gallery, and is the 2015 and 2016 Singapore National Poetry Slam champion.

On using social media without losing our goddamn minds: I post very little on Instagram. What helps me create a healthy distance, is understanding that my online persona does not have to be an exact, or complementary mirror of my physical reality. Broadcasting everything and wallowing in the incoming validation leaves you in a sunken place because nothing will ever be great enough to define you whole. Bring some mystery in your life.

One activity that has helped me: Speaking to friends — sometimes not even about what I'm going through. Even banal interaction with people I trust and care about, helps put things in perspective at least temporarily. I know they got me, and so I go on.

Advice to other young creatives: There is no rush. Please be kind to yourselves. Do not let anyone  yourself included  take you for granted. Understand, and call out the pressures you and others are putting yourself through. Ask people you trust for help. There is no shame in that. Pressure can be a great simulant, but it is not sustainable and is definitely no badge of honour. Finding a way of creation that brings you pleasure — could that be your ambition?

Resources/services for mental health I would like to see in Singapore: More affordable mental health services that are part of work structures and benefits. One cannot simultaneously demand strenuous mental effort from a person (and one shouldn't), and not offer them recourse.

On 'tortured genius'  the correlation between creativity and mental illness: Yes, depression is not poetry. I have seen too many friends go through it, and not acknowledge this. If art is killing you, it is maybe not worth it.

If you are currently experiencing a mental crisis or know someone who is, please reach out to the appropriate service provider listed on the National Council of Social Service's resource directory for mental health in Singapore. 

For more information on the artists, check out Subhas Nair, Shivram Gopinath, Berny Tan, Racy Lim, Joella Kiu, Shaf Ami'ssabudin and Souher Wahba.

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