Science Faces

From IMH patient to pillar of support

Mr Ng, 22, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 18. He was referred to the Early Psychosis Intervention Programme (EPIP) at the Institute of Mental Health, where he got better after receiving help. He now works part-time at the EPIP.
Mr Ng, 22, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 18. He was referred to the Early Psychosis Intervention Programme (EPIP) at the Institute of Mental Health, where he got better after receiving help. He now works part-time at the EPIP.ST PHOTO: DON CHI

He has schizophrenia and he wants more with the condition to help combat stigma against it

Desmond Ng was 18 and a second-year polytechnic student when he began hearing voices in his head, especially around people in school.

"I would get this feeling of fear and paranoia around them and hear a voice telling me that other people were trying to hurt me, and that I should retaliate before they do," said Mr Ng, now 22.

He thought the voices stemmed from his thoughts and feelings, and did not dwell on them until he felt increasingly stressed. Six months later, he sought help from his tutor and was referred to a counsellor. "That was when I got to know more about psychosis and schizophrenia, and realised the voices might not be my own thoughts," he said.

Psychosis refers to a group of mental disorders, including schizophrenia. Those with the illness can experience hallucinations or delusions, or display abnormal behaviour.

Mr Ng's counsellor suggested he go to Chat Hub, a centre at *Scape that offers free mental health assessments for youth. There, he was referred to the Early Psychosis Intervention Programme (EPIP) at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).

But his parents did not initially accept the diagnosis and believed he was possessed by spirits. "They took me to a medium a few times to see if anything worked," he said.

He and his parents had a lot of arguments over how to deal with his episodes. But multi-family group sessions helped them accept his illness after three years.

The sessions were held once a month by the EPIP. Five to six families gather to discuss patients' symptoms and coping strategies used by patients and parents.

While speaking to a therapist and taking medication helped alleviate the symptoms of his illness, it was meeting his peers at EPIP that really paved Mr Ng's way to recovery.

He was reluctant to interact with people initially but was persuaded not only to do so, but to also join activities like sports. He said that meeting those who got better and "hearing their stories and struggles really drives me to think that I can do this".

He met a "peer support specialist" at a workshop and thought about becoming one himself. Such specialists can be recovering patients or caregivers of recovering patients.

"They showed me that they could use their stories to inspire others, help others, and learn more about themselves in the process."

While Mr Ng still hears voices and goes for occasional follow-ups with his doctor and psychotherapist, the condition does not bother him as much now. He works part-time at EPIP as a peer support specialist to facilitate activity groups that explore each person's strengths and remind patients that there are ways to cope with the illness.

Mr Ng hopes more patients will share their stories. "Right now, there's a stigma around... talking about mental illnesses, so hopefully we might have people seeing that it's okay to talk about it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2016, with the headline 'From IMH patient to pillar of support '. Print Edition | Subscribe