Therapy and self-help stories for the cause of mental health awareness in Singapore
Therapy. A word that seems to be enunciated more commonly as a cure, rather than prevention. And to cure what you might ask? Something grave, like a marriage on the brink of doom or a child who is declared mute after experiencing personal trauma. But here's the thing: therapy shouldn't have to be skirted to a worse-case scenario, nor should it be subjected to a stigma of taboo and shame. That's probably when things actually start to get dangerous. The awareness of mental health shouldn't be pigeon-holed to only concern the deeply disturbed or people on a strict prescription. Conversations surrounding our problems, stressors, and anxiety should be able to own its own safe place — like turning to a health professional about it, which an increasing number of young adults are doing. Essentially, self-care. To comprehend it better myself, and for the society's sceptics, I spoke to four millennials on their journey with therapy, and here are their stories.
*Some of the names below have been altered.
I realised growing up, I would be sad about things that others wouldn't be sad about. I would be hurt about things that others wouldn't be hurt about. I also felt sad for no reason, I thought (which I later learned translates to reasons I didn't yet know). I thought I would eventually "grow out of it", but I didn't. I wanted to speak to someone professional about it, but nobody I knew went to therapy. That and the media's inaccurate portrayal of therapy made me think it's a practice reserved for the truly troubled, including but not limited to those who are depressed to the point of suicidal. I finally decided to go to therapy after a good friend started to, and she indirectly made me realise that it's no big deal. It's self-care.
I don't see going to therapy as "going to find a cure for my issues". Therapy is like going to a fitness coach, but for your mind, or heart. Like muscles, those organs need strengthening and sometimes rewiring from time to time.
Therapy helps different people in different ways. But for me, it was most beneficial in giving me the tools to understand the effects my childhood had on me, learning forgiveness and boundaries, and phasing out coping mechanisms that while instinctive, are unhealthy. So much of who we are and what we do, and why we do what we do, live behind a closed door. Therapy opens it. Or rather, gives you the key to open it.
Making the decision to see a therapist was extremely easy because I was at my wit's end. I found it almost impossible to function day-to-day. Some days my anxiety got so bad that I just couldn't get out of bed. And when I dragged myself to work, my emotions fluctuated turbulently throughout the day. I found myself crying every day during lunch and on the train home from work. Sometimes I would steal moments at the office stairwell to just cry. I tried reaching out to some friends but nothing seemed to help. Life was bleak and I felt so isolated, helpless, and powerless. My gut instinct told me that I had to speak to a professional, but was deterred by the financial costs. Thankfully, a friend happened to know someone who went through therapy at a goverment-subsidised counselling centre and found it very helpful. That's how I got started.
I have personally never visited a psychiatrist so I am not clinically diagnosed nor medicated. Talk therapy was my only form of professional help. However, some other people might need medication on top of talk therapy. Everybody is different and there is absolutely no shame in seeking the specific form of help that is necessary for each individual to heal from his/her wounds and improve the quality of his/her life.
My own personal journey through therapy started by creating critical awareness about the complex spectrum of emotions that I was experiencing. Picking up emotional literacy was one of the best things that had ever happened to me. I started to understand the difference between emotions like guilt and shame, and started recognising the interconnected fear and shame triggers that fuelled my anxiety. Then, after becoming more aware about my emotions and anxiety causes, I learnt tools to help me manage them in day-to-day life. Most of my immediate triggers in daily life were work-related, but through learning how to manage them in the context of work, I also learnt how to extend those skills to other parts of my life.
Therapy is actually not an easy process, because you have to develop courage to confront yourself and talk about things that are sometimes deeply distressing, and then consciously work on breaking unhealthy patterns of thought and behaviour outside of therapy — which is the bulk of our lives. However, it is one of the highest commitments that you can make to yourself in the journey of prioritising your own well-being. We cannot pour from an empty cup; if the quality of our well-being is suffering, all other aspects of our life will also suffer.
Diagnoses can be rather confounding. I was told I had depression at 17. By the time I turned 18, my doctor had added chronic to the mix, along with social anxiety and mild schizophrenia. Then, somewhere in my mid-twenties, I was told I have borderline personality disorder. With every diagnosis, treatment involved medication, therapy, and sometimes — when things get out of hand — hospitalisation.
While I followed my prescription to a tee, I didn't take therapy very seriously when I was younger. I always felt like I was an object of analysis, not a human being to be heard or understood. But that changed two years ago. After a traumatic year of painful losses which resulted in me battling severe anxiety, I was desperate for help. I knew my two options were: Pay hundreds per session with a private therapist, or go the cheaper route with the Institute of Mental Health. I opted for the latter, and was given an appointment date a month later. But how was I going to survive a month? In my desperation, I started to look for alternatives online and came across BetterHelp.
Think of it as Tinder for troubled minds. You fill up a questionaire and get matched in 24 hours or less, with a licensed therapist. The online portal has more than 3,000 therapists in its network, so if you don't vibe with the one you've been matched with, you can always move on to someone else. It's a subscription-based platform, and the cost ranges from USD35 to USD70 per week. My therapist, Andy, who I've been seeing for the last two years, lives in Boston, and we do a video-call once a week. Through the app, I can also send him messages any time, and share journal entries with him. It took me some weeks to get comfortable with him in the beginning, but he managed to take down my walls little by little as time went by. Andy changed my life. I am and will always be immensely grateful for his unwavering faith and support as I tackle the tough slog of my mental health.
Ten years ago, undergoing therapy meant you're sick and/or crazy. These days, it's a lifestyle or a self-care routine. If anyone out there feels shame going to therapy, you're hanging with the wrong crowd.
My journey with therapy started when my partner suggested couple's counselling. It wasn't an easy decision for me as I wasn't keen on the idea of someone helping us "discuss" our problem. I've always had the impression that therapy was meant for helpless cases. But after we went through that, I made the decision to continue my therapy session as an individual because I saw myself becoming a better person, or at least motivated to be one. Sometimes, when problems arise, I don't realise that it's actually based on something that had happening long ago. The problem was deep-rooted, hence that same issue kept following me wherever I went.
When I talked about it with my friends and family, they had their own biased or preconceived judgement. So no matter how much advice they gave me, it didn't feel right. When I went for therapy, my problems were laid out as they were and it became up to me to decide what felt right. Therapy has empowered me by giving me clarity and independence to make my own decisions. It helped me to feel grounded and myself again. I know some people are doing other things to find clarity — meditation, prayer, spending time with family. I'm all for that. It's never a waste of money if it's helping you to become a better version of yourself.