Today is World Mental Health Day. According to the WHO, it is a day for “raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health.” This year, in particular, the focus is on suicide prevention.
A painful phone call
This hits close to home for me. You see, almost exactly 3 years ago, a student of mine, D, died by suicide (I choose to say died by suicide, rather than committed, because committed feels like it is a crime/sin). He was suffering from a host of mental health issues (depression, schizophrenia) and I was one of the people he had turned to. In my role as a counsellor, I could only offer a listening ear, some techniques to manage the internal pain he was experiencing. He was also supported by a psychiatrist & his family.
I remember receiving the phone call – it was at 5pm, the day after my birthday. I was playing in the park with my children when my ex-colleague called. My first reaction was “No! How can it be?” ? I had just checked in on him a few weeks ago, and things seemed OK. Of course, it wasn’t face-to-face, so it could have not been OK. This is one of the things about mental illness – it isn’t always predictable.
My next thoughts drifted to “Why would he do this?” It was a question asked by many of his fellow students, people who knew him, and of course, his family. While it is a very normal question to ask, in my heart, I knew why. He was in too much pain. You see, it isn’t so much because the person wants to die, it’s because the pain is just too much to bear. I recall the times he sat in front of me, enraged by some injustice he had experienced; or sobbing because he felt such an extreme amount of shame from something that had happened from years ago. Yet there were also times where he was chirpy, sharing with me his dreams and goals, just like a normal university student.
People with mental illness are not CRAZY
Because he was – a normal university student. He wanted to help people after he graduated. He loved playing with his niece. He was in two minds about God & religion – we sure had some intense debates surround this. He liked a girl but didn’t dare to tell her. People tend to call people with mental illness “crazy”. I say, ENOUGH! They are not crazy, they just need help and support in what could be the most challenging illness they’ve ever battled.
Following his death, I was consumed by rage and guilt, but mostly rage ?. I was angry because I felt more could have been done. I was angry that he wasn’t given the space to express how he felt safely in the years before I had known him. I was angry that he was in so much pain, yet so much of what we offered was medication. I was angry that he wasn’t taught the skills to be resilient in school, or to even recognize the symptoms that he had, so perhaps he could have had intervention sooner. I was angry that the stigma of mental illness exists. Why can’t we talk about this as we talk about physical illness? Why do we respond to mental illness so differently from physical illness?
As I write this, the rate of adolescent youth suicide has increased (in Singapore), particularly in adolescent boys. University students are battling depression. There is a rising trend of self-harm among the young. Suicidal ideation is starting as early as 10 years of age. As a former educator, this is sad. As a mother, this is scary.
We need to do more
When D died, it really woke me up. First, it reminded me that we could not and should not take what we have for granted. After his death, I went back to campus to support the students (as I knew them all so well), and because they needed to see a familiar face. Some students shared that it made them realise how much their stressing over a term paper felt so trivial, that their worries felt small in comparison to what D must have been going through. Speaking to another student earlier this year, she shared how she is very cognizant of the need to self-care as she embarks on her new career. When someone you know dies by suicide, it changes you on a very conscious & subconscious level.
Second, I felt a stronger conviction that more needs to be done! We need a more concerted push to destigmatize mental illness. We need to work on prevention, and not just intervention. We need to empower children as young as pre-school with skills such as recognising, labelling & expressing their emotions. We need to empower people in society to show compassion, rather than disdain or disgust, to people who might be suffering. We need to empower people to find the joy in life, to find meaning in work, to create their own happiness. And we need to let people know that putting your mental health as a priority is not silly; it is essential! Furthermore, happiness should not be taken for granted.
Many people ask me “Why happiness?” They make comments such as “Happiness is frivolous” or “Happiness is a bonus” (I debunk many of these myths in this article). What they don’t know is that I don’t just speak about happiness, I try my hardest to LIVE IT. In an effort to understand it more deeply, I have tried everything that I speak/train about on myself. That way, when someone tells me that happiness is fluffy, I can tell them “it works!” When someone tells me “I’ve tried to count my blessings for 2 weeks, and I don’t feel happier”, I can tell them what might be wrong. When someone says, “I don’t like my work”, I can dig a little deeper to identify what is going on.
In this very intimate way then, I want to say: Happiness is a way of living. Happiness is our birthright. Happiness is fundamental to our mental health.
Years ago, when I had my second child, Zoey, I experienced moments of desperation and hopelessness. I thought of the nights spent expressing my milk, all by myself and felt extremely isolated. I would cry for no reason – in those moments, joy was fleeting. At first, I blamed myself for not knowing all the answers, for not being able to be as present as I would have liked to. Thankfully, with the knowledge & skills I had, those dark moments passed, and I recovered.
It has got to mean something
But D didn’t recover from his last dark moments. Sometimes when I imagine what it was like for him to make the decision, it is likely one filled with tears. When I recall how fondly he spoke of his lovable niece, I couldn’t believe that he wanted to die. He wanted to live but it was just too much to bear.
Maybe at this point, you’re thinking. This is so depressing – aren’t you all about Happiness?You see, to me, happiness isn’t just about that emoji you see. It is also about resilience ?, it is about optimism ??, it is about self-acceptance, it is about so much more. So yes, I am about Happiness, even if sometimes along the way there is pain, and there is challenge. It’s a journey after all.
I’d like to end off with saying: Don’t cry for D. I have stopped crying because he is no longer suffering. I have stopped crying because I know his death means something. It has given me even more conviction to spread this message about taking happiness seriously to as many people as I can – in schools, in workplaces, wherever it matters. To the point where you can call me “Miss Happy” if you’d like. Because if that makes you smile a little, maybe even laugh a little, why not? ?
What you can do
If you’re reading this and believe in this message, then on this World Mental Health Day 2019, here’s what you can do:
- Reach out to your loved ones and friends and ask them sincerely, “How are you?” And at the same time, tell them “I love you.” ??
- Speak about mental illness just the way you would speak about physical illness. People suffer from depression, people suffer from heart disease. Talking about it allows those suffering to be able to express how they are feeling. Sometimes, it’s OK to not be OK. ?
- If you are a parent, remind your children that you will love them for who they are. Don’t tie their worth to academic results. Learn & teach them the skills to help them be ready to weather ups & downs in their life. ??
- If you are an Educator/Principal, bring these happiness skills into your classroom. Not sure how? Reach out to me, and I’ll be happy to run you through.
- f you’re a Boss/CEO/HR professional, start taking mental health seriously. Go beyond just cosmetic mental health options like healthy eating, and yoga days, to preventative mental health solutions. Starbucks in the USA has taken the lead on this. Value your people.
- Empower yourself with the skills for happiness and well-being by taking up a course. Why not take this one by Yale Professor Laurie Santos – it’s completely FREE!
Please help me make D’s death mean something – share this with someone who can make a difference or who needs to read this. Thank you.
PS: If you’re reading this, and you’re in pain, know you’re not alone. Please reach out, talk to someone and get support.
About the writer:
Sha-En is the 1st Singaporean graduate of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania. She has been featured on multiple media platforms, including TV documentary ‘Chasing Happiness’, Business Times & radio MONEY 89.3FM. As the founder of Happiness Scientists, Sha-En has trained more than 10,000 people in schools & organisations in the research and practice of Positive Psychology. A professional speaker, she has spoken at the 1st Positive Psychology Conference in the Philippines & World Congress on Positive Psychology 2019 in Melbourne. She recently did her first TEDx talk at the TEDxSalon in Singapore.