LIVING WITH INVISIBLE DISABILITIES | TACKLING SELF-STIGMA

Facing their fears, at sea

Volunteer trainer James Leong in the water assisting a fellow instructor on the sailboat in guiding one participant of the sailing certification course on how to manoeuvre the craft.
Volunteer trainer James Leong in the water assisting a fellow instructor on the sailboat in guiding one participant of the sailing certification course on how to manoeuvre the craft. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Combating stigma is key in raising the level of public understanding and acceptance towards those with less visible disabilities, and ensuring that they get equal opportunities in employment and access to services and facilities. Insight reports on the unique efforts taken by various groups to tackle self-stigma and that from the community. Research has shown that the effect of self-stigma can be worse than that of stigma from the public. Change starts from within.

The 22-year-old woman stood transfixed under a palm tree, seemingly oblivious to a sailing instructor in the sea off Pasir Ris Beach gesturing for her to board a boat. Her parents hovered nearby, trying to persuade her to go in the water.

Sarah (not her real name) has schizophrenia and is prone to moments when she freezes and does not respond to anyone.

After 10 minutes, she had still not joined the instructor.

Then, her parents shoved her forward - and she moved a few steps. Nearly 20 minutes later, she made it to the boat.

Once on board, however, Sarah came alive. As the wind direction changed, she effortlessly switched seats with the instructor to maintain the boat's balance.

NEED TO BOOST CONFIDENCE

Research has shown that the effect of self-stigma is worse than that of stigma from the public. When you do not believe in yourself, the lowered expectations have deep psychological and emotional implications.

MS JANE GOH, SAMH's head of creative services.

"At first I didn't feel like doing this, but when out at sea, I don't regret coming. I like how the wind blows," Sarah says.

Sarah was part of a group of 10 people from the Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH), a voluntary welfare organisation that supports people with mental illness, who took up the challenge of getting certified in sailing.

The project is the brainchild of Ms Jane Goh, SAMH's head of creative services.

"Research has shown that the effect of self-stigma is worse than that of stigma from the public. When you do not believe in yourself, the lowered expectations have deep psychological and emotional implications," says Ms Goh.

She wanted the 10, who have schizophrenia, depression or anxiety issues, to overcome some of their fears and gain resilience by learning how to sail. They are also part of a mental health research study she is conducting that aims to gauge the impact of sports and art therapy on confidence levels and ability to cope with relapses.

The three-day sailing certification course for people with mental illness is run by the People's Association (PA). It is the first time PA has partnered a charity to run such a course.

From the way things were going, however, some bystanders wondered if the undertaking was too ambitious. Most participants seemed confused about how to rig the boats' ropes, and stood watching instructors do so. Out at sea, screams were heard as sailboats got in each other's way.

Ms Amanda Low, 27, who has depression, started wailing when her boat nearly tipped over. Unruffled, her instructor tried to calm her down by removing his sunglasses and getting her to look into his eyes as he reassured her.

Volunteer trainer James Leong, 56, who is with PA Water Venture - a unit under PA that offers outdoor water activities to the public - jollied her along, as well.

Says Mr Leong: "Our goal is to help them enjoy themselves. We believe they can do it, even for Sarah who responds slower. (In fact), when she actually does the moves such as turning the boat, she does it better than some trainers."

Participants have picked up life skills. Says Ms Low: "I have learnt how to better control my emotions. I find that difficulties get easier as you go along, so it's about taking things one step at a time."

One 40-year-old participant, who has been struggling with depression for the past three years, learnt that it is all right to accept help from others.

The former sports executive, who declined to be named, says: "Because of my condition, I used to look down on myself and keep my emotions to myself for fear that I would be judged by others. But now, I think it's okay to tell others how I feel when I need help."

Against the setting sun, Mr Leong guided a teenage girl onboard to head for the last buoy of a navigation exercise. She reached out and gave the buoy a triumphant tap.

In the end, only four out of the 10 participants graduated with the certificate required to sail in future. But to Ms Goh, passing was not the point: "The experience is our aim and destination."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 08, 2016, with the headline 'Facing their fears, at sea'. Print Edition | Subscribe