When you hear the term “mental illness”, what comes to mind?
Hopefully nothing negative or uninformed, says Emily Tan. Emily is a volunteer with The Achievers – Friends of IMH (Institute of Mental Health) in Singapore.
“The discrimination and stigma connected to mental illness makes people dread getting close to those who are perceived to be ‘psychologically unstable’,” she maintains.
“These perceptions can be wrong, unsafe and vicious.” Established in 1999, The Achievers – Friends of IMH is a non-profit group that provides companionship and support to IMH staff and patients through planned activities, events and visits, among others. They aim to raise awareness and educate people about mental health, upholding values of compassion, understanding, respect, and love along the way.
She wants to add empathy and forgiveness into the mix too. 😊 The Achievers come across different cases of mental illness, like depression and bipolar disorder, and Emily admits that patients may do things that cause them to be misunderstood.
“By showing empathy, the patients would feel comfortable interacting with people,” she observes.
“Some behaviours or words they use might be hostile, but this is beyond their control. By being forgiving, we allow them to have another opportunity to change or improve.” According to Emily, The Achievers have also extended their services to SILRA/SURYA, St Andrew’s, and THK Home For Disabled @ Sembawang through activities such as monthly birthday parties, workshops in wards, ‘IMH Ringers’ and ‘Boss For The Day’ (more on this below), haircuts at THK, No One Dies Alone (NODA) at IMH, and occasional outings to places like Gardens By The Bay, Singapore Flyer, Madame Tussauds, and picnics in parks and beaches, just to name a few.
They also plan for Chinese New Year celebrations, the Mid-Autumn Festival, National Day, and Christmas.
These programmes do help. “Many patients with mental illness have been abandoned by society and are being isolated in nursing homes or hospitals,” Emily states.
“The reality of their situation, and the fear and stress they face, go beyond our expectations. Not only do they have to battle with their illness, but they end up feeling challenged by others’ prejudices and stereotypes.
“Volunteering for mental health issues allows us to help the patients connect with the outside world, and this brings them hope.”
You and your contributions matter
Emily joined The Achievers in 2017 after being introduced to the group by a friend. “I found their activities quite interesting; we not only help special friends, but we also get to de-stress after having fun with them.” (By the way, Emily reveals that The Achievers refer to people with mental illness as “special friends” at IMH.)
She is also inspired by The Achievers’ leaders, who she says “do all that they can to make things happen”.
“For big events where we have over 100 special friends, they invite and coordinate with other volunteer groups due to our limited manpower,” she recalls. Which goes to show that every offer of help counts – like yours.
You may think that you don’t have what it takes to be an effective member of The Achievers (or any other worthy cause), but Emily’s experiences prove that there’s a caring volunteer in all of us. In fact, she’s sure you can do these:
#1 Lend someone a shoulder or a hand
“The result may not be physical, but something that would touch your heart,” Emily declares.
“There was once a special friend who kept crying and moving around during an event. No one was soothing her, not even the nurse. I was a fledgling volunteer then (and an emotional person), so I naturally went up to her and clutched her face. I kept on telling her, ‘Ssshh, it’s fine. We are here. No worries.’
“Suddenly she took a gander at me and said, ‘Can you give me a minute to cry?’ and I replied, ‘Sure.’ She then leaned on my shoulder and sobbed hysterically. Everyone was looking at me, and despite feeling embarrassed, I knew I was doing the right thing.
“After a while, that special friend stopped crying and told me, ‘Sister, thank you very much for letting me cry.’ I was startled, but I felt delighted too. I replied, ‘You are welcome’ with a smile.”
#2 Practise a little patience
“There was a special friend who was always grouchy, and she cursed and swore most of the time. She would chastise and rebuke volunteers or nurses who never met her needs. But I am a person who likes a challenge. I met this special friend a few times and got the same treatment as the rest, but I never gave up and still went to her.
“One day during a ward visit, she raised her head, looked at me and smiled. She said, ‘Gracious, you are here today.’ In my heart, I was so happy that she recognised me. So we enjoyed each other’s company and I saw her grinning face throughout the event.”
#3 Give people a chance
“You will be astonished by their talent,” Emily confesses.
“The Achievers have a musical programme called ‘IMH Ringers’, which is headed by one volunteer. It encourages special friends to use musical instruments and to play music.
“One day during tea time, I asked around for a special friend who might want to sing. This young fellow raised his hand, so I invited him to come up front. We were stunned when he began to sing – he had a magnificent voice. He sang one song fluently and smoothly from beginning to end. He was grinning when we all gave him a round of applause. Since then, he’s been our favourite and delegated vocalist for most of the events he’s attended.”
#4 Offer to assist them
“… and they would be willing to put in the effort to learn and change,” Emily continues.
“By guiding them, a special friend would certainly improve and do better.”
She cites one example. “‘IMH Ringers’ is an ongoing activity where our special friends learn to play with resonance bars. The bars have different pitches, so our special friends train for a few hours each session. After having learnt them, they were invited to play on stage in one event. They were elated and some were even selected to play solo. The selected candidates practiced extremely hard for their performance.”
#5 Show them that they are capable of anything
“The Achievers also have a programme called ‘Boss For The Day’,” Emily shares.
“It’s an activity where special friends tend to a stall (with the assistance of the volunteers) and sell some donated handicrafts, second-hand clothing, confections, and so on. A special friend can be trained in retail, managing finances and interacting with people.
“It is very inspiring to see them enhance their skills as the activities go on,” she concludes.
Well then, are you up for it? You and The Achievers’ special friends can be each other’s champion. It can be tough sometimes, but just think of the many ways you can help bring people’s attention to the issues that surround mental health.
The Achievers are ready and waiting. 😊
For more on The Achievers – Friends of IMH, go to their Facebook page.