Finding freedom in Christ. Photo: VITA Images

Louis Aquinas Tan

Bringing a Catholic perspective to mental well-being BRAVE: Catholic Youth Mental Health Festival 2020 was held from Oct 10-31 in conjunction with World Mental Health Day. Held virtually on Zoom, BRAVE stands for “Bringing Raw and Authentic Valuable Experiences”.

BRAVE 2020, which reaches out to youths aged 16-35, was organised by Clarity Singapore, a Catholic mental health charity, to coincide with its 10th anniversary and Caritas Singapore, the official social and community arm of the Catholic Church in Singapore.

The speakers included Catholic mental health professionals, persons recovering from mental health conditions, as well as priests and religious. It drew 95 registered participants, ranging from those struggling with mental illness and their caregivers, to students and professionals in the field.

Refuge in faith

In his opening speech, Caritas Singapore’s Chairman Professor Tan Cheng Han said: “The Church teaches that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) regardless of whether they suffer any ailments, physical or psychological.”

According to Christian theology, suffering can be redemptive. Peer support specialist Gwladys Tan shared about her struggle with depression: “The image of Jesus nailed to the cross stuck with me.” It was this image that gave Gwladys the strength to overcome her pain each time and go about her daily tasks.

During a bout of depression, Faith Wong, who has been struggling with the mental health condition since she was in Secondary school, was struck by the Bible verse, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)” It was from this moment that she began confiding in God, sparking her conversion towards the Christian faith.

Faith in God can therefore strengthen someone struggling with mental health conditions, and is a firm basis for hope in recovery — without which it can be difficult to continue therapy.

Community Psychology Hub director Peter Tan said that mental health recovery is like peeling an onion. “You peel the first layer, and then you cry. God heals that layer. But there are many different layers to go through for God to make you fully healed.”

Help within reach

A mental health condition is neither “God’s punishment” nor “a result of lack of faith”, stressed Faith, who currently serves as a peer support specialist at a hospital. Rather, a mental health condition is just like any other illness. As such, it is appropriate to seek treatment rather than simply to try and pray it away.

“Most people with a mental health condition do not seek help,” said Dr Christopher Cheok, senior consultant at IMH and chairman of Clarity Singapore. He attributes this treatment gap to a general lack of awareness and a fear of social stigma.

Debunking a popular myth, Dr Cheok stressed that the cost of mental healthcare in Singapore is “not exorbitant”. A therapy session costs $35 at public hospitals, and patients may obtain a referral letter from any polyclinic. For mild to moderate cases, patients may approach a general practitioner or get free treatment at mental health charities such as Clarity.

Dr Cheok emphasised that doctors always respect their clients’ choice of treatment. Clients can opt in or out for medicine, psychotherapy, and/or physical and mental exercises.

“Don’t delay treatment for a mental health condition,” said Faith. Drawing a parallel, she quipped, “If you suffer from a heart attack, you wouldn’t delay treatment.”

On discrimination at the workplace, Faith shared that she had always disclosed her condition in her job and scholarship applications. This helped her to filter out employers and sponsors who would not be understanding of her. “It’s a fact that I have this condition,” she said. “If they don’t want to hire me, then perhaps they are not the right fit for me.”

Gwladys also pointed out that in Singapore, since January 2020, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) has advised that employers are no longer allowed to ask job applicants to declare their mental health condition, unless there is a job-related requirement. Errant employers may be referred to the Ministry of Manpower for enforcement action. Job seekers are therefore free to decide on whether to declare their mental health conditions.

Jane Lee, a youth coordinator from the Church of Divine Mercy shared, “As a participant, I got to learn and understand the minds of youth better through those professionals who have years of experience working in their fields,” she said.

And paediatrician Dr Alison Snodgrass added: “I am very glad to have gained awareness of the multiple organisations that support mental health in the community.”