Growing up in the nineties, mental illness was taboo talk. The picture of mental illness was close to the likes of Hannibal Lecter. A character with dishevelled hair, hands pulled back by a straight jacket, squatting in the corner of a sanitised white room that is heavily padded on all sides.
Thankfully, we managed to reeducate Singaporeans to refer to Woodbridge as IMH (Institute of Mental Health). Even till the early 2000s, I could remember “Woodbridge” being in our lingo and jokes whenever we met someone who was s-i-a-o or shen-jing-bing.
Once, I was sitting a bus when the lady behind me started a commotion, with herself and by herself. She looked middle-aged and her face was caked in make-up, but it wasn’t enough to hide the hysteria in her smile. And her lifeless, cold, beady eyes. I shiver.
For the modern reader, we were certain she was not screeching at her ex-husband over the phone. Back then, the buses were without air conditioning and we carried phone cards and loose change for public telephones. Handphones were not a thing yet. That also meant no one could Stomp her. So, we did what Singaporeans do best after complaining. We looked forward, ignored the problem, crossed our fingers and waited for the end. Just like an ostrich burying its head into the ground.
The lady’s rant crescendoed into a a shouting match (still with herself). Bus driver stopped the bus and invited us to alight while he tried to calm her down… “Need to call Woodbridge…” he muttered under his breath.
In response, she spat at his face vehemently.
Slowly, we knew more about mental illness, but the social stigma was not any less. Coming out from the shadows, the demons now had names. My friend told me he suffered from Depression. Another shared that she was Bipolar. An uncle had Schizophrenia.
Society shuns them. Society doesn’t know how to help them. Neither do I.
You could see a psychologist to face your demons. Or you could see a psychiatrist to pop some pills.
Hearsay: Singapore has (or used to have) a strong push on a drug out approach to mental illness rather than holistic recovery. I’m not sure how true this is but the narrative does fit what I saw happen to my friends. Once they started on meds, they became zombies, shadows of their formal selves. They would be lethargic all day. If anyone knows more about this, I would love to hear from you!
I learnt that words like cheer up, don’t emo, could do more harm than good. Very quickly, friendships and relationships erode away. I tried to be a good friend but dealing with outbursts or negative thought patterns takes a toll on your emotions… Hopefully I was of help…
Just putting down my thoughts after I saw a friend post about mental wellness. Do you know someone who’s suffering from mental illness?