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Guiding others to peace of mind

In the spirit of World Mental Health Day tomorrow, The Straits Times looks at how healthcare assistant Alan Ng draws strength from his personal experience to provide care for people with mental health challenges.

Dressed in a simple uniform of purple polo T-shirt and black pants, Mr Alan Ng is a picture of enthusiasm and energy as he leads a group of about 20 nursing home residents in a weekly choir and karaoke session.

It is hard to imagine that barely four years ago, the 48-year-old healthcare assistant was himself battling his own inner demons.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his 20s, a brain disorder that causes extreme mood swings, he suffered severe depression for much of the following two decades. He was in and out of different hospitals more than 20 times.

At his lowest point, he felt so helpless that he would not venture out of his house. He could not hold down a job and his relationship with his loved ones was tumultuous.

In 2008, Mr Ng was transferred to the Hougang Care Centre for rehabilitation after treatment at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH). There he met two people who would change his life.

Between 2008 and 2011, Ms Irene Sng, who is now the centre head of Community Rehabilitation and Support Services (Bukit Batok), visited him at home and gained his family's support and understanding.

Seeing his passion to help others, she coaxed him to take up a healthcare course, following which she recommended him for the job of healthcare assistant at St Andrew's Nursing Home (SANH) in Buangkok. On his 45th birthday, he began work at the 300-bed, long-term residential care facility for people with mental health issues and disabilities.

  • Living with a depressed person

    If you know someone who is unable to cope with depression, get him to seek treatment early. Professional help is available and effective.

    HOW CAN YOU HELP?

    •Get him to see a doctor so that he can be diagnosed and treated. Offer emotional support. Spend time and encourage him to open up. Offer a listening ear.

    •Encourage him to continue with treatment. Reassure him that he will get better. If the depressed person has mentioned not wanting to live or suicide, it is important to tell his therapist.

    •It is important to remain patient and not get frustrated. Keep in mind that depression is an illness and not reflective of the patient/sufferer.

    WHERE TO SEEK HELP

    •Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444

    •Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019

    •Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222

    •Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800

    •Silver Ribbon: 6386-1928

    •Club Heal: 6899-3463

    •Touch Community Services: 6377-0122

    •Tinkle Friend (for primary school-aged children): 1800-274-4788

    SOURCE: INSTITUTE OF MENTAL HEALTH

Mr Ng also developed a personal bond with senior consultant psychiatrist Joseph Leong of IMH. "Every doctor is caring, but Dr Leong is special. He helped me to get back into society. He kept calling me to check on me and he cut my medications so that I would not feel so tired."

As a healthcare assistant, his daily responsibilities include bathing, toileting and supporting nurses in resident care and activities.

But he also felt a need to help improve the residents' quality of life.

His own experience in recovery meant he could empathise with them on a deeply personal level. He understood their fear and sense of withdrawal after many years of being in institutions.

Residents had conditions such as schizophrenia and dementia, or had to use a wheelchair, were blind, autistic, non-verbal and uncommunicative. Many exhibited aggressive behaviour and Mr Ng endured rejections, punches and kicks.

Working with each one daily over a period of one to six months, he was able to reduce the aggressive behaviour, improve their social interaction skills and mental well-being and rebuild their self-confidence.

Mr Ng has worked with 11 residents and helped them in their recovery process. "I see every resident as my friend, and they deserve as much love, compassion and support from me as I once received from those who cared for me," he said.

For his work, Mr Ng was one of four people who received the highest Honourable Mention at the Healthcare Humanity Awards in April. The annual awards, organised by the National Healthcare Group, pay tribute to healthcare workers who display exceptional qualities and dedication in helping others.

"I was stuck for a long time going around in circles. When I finally understood that, I didn't want to keep going around in circles any more. I want to walk a straight path, knowing that there will be challenges and obstacles along the way. Even if it means I'll fall, I'll climb back up."


Mr Ng scoops a bowl of his mother’s red bean soup for his elder sister at the family’s weekly dinner in the Ang Mo Kio five-room HDB flat where he lives with his parents. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he used to isolate himself and avoided his family. Since 2014, after he started working as a healthcare assistant, his relationship with the family has improved. His Teochew mother, Madam Seah Sun Toh (in pink), 83, who shows her support by cooking for him, is proud of his recovery and achievements and told him to “work and volunteer at the same time”. Mr Ng, who is single, is her second youngest child and he has five brothers and five sisters. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN 


Mr Ng takes a group of SANH residents to a Buangkok Green coffee shop for breakfast. To him, every recovery story is an affirmation that everyone deserves to lead a life with dignity despite limiting conditions. His personal touch – drawn from his own experience recovering from depression – has encouraged residents he cares for to flourish under his watch. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN 


A rare emotional moment as Mr Ng meets senior consultant psychiatrist Joseph Leong at the Institute of Mental Health canteen for breakfast. After his last hospital discharge in 2013, Mr Ng sought treatment from Dr Leong for two years and they built a strong rapport over time. Although they no longer meet for clinical consultations, they still keep in touch through messages. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN 


Mr Teo Say Siong, 50, is reminded about the choir and karaoke session in the afternoon as Mr Ng goes around the wards. The in-house choir, made up of nursing home residents, meets weekly to sing and also to prepare for performances for festivals and celebrations such as the Mid-Autumn Festival. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN


Mr Goh Eng Hua (second from right), 69, after winning a Bingo game, chooses his prize from among biscuits, instant coffee sachets, instant noodles and bread. Mr Ng, who organises game sessions at the home, remembers his own craving for instant noodles during his time in the hospitals and wants to give residents something to look forward to. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN 


Mr Ng chats with Mr Goh Eng Hua (left), 69, and Mr Allan Phua, 42, as they take a break after buying groceries. Every day, weekends included, he will spend an hour or two with his “friends”, sharing their pain each step of the way. When he has gained their trust, they let him work with them to achieve positive outcomes for themselves. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN 


Dementia residents (from left) Poh Ah Kew, 83, Choong Moi Chin, 77, and Helen Chay, 77, pack cutlery in their ward, a daily activity that Mr Ng initiated to empower residents to participate in programmes and remain active. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN


Senior nurse manager Goh Liang Kim, 67, and Mr Ng prepare wholegrain pasta in the training room for an outdoor games-and-food fair, usually held twice a month. The residents’ favourite dishes? Laksa, roti prata and carrot cake. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN 


A resident admires fish kept at the nursing home’s clubhouse, which is opened every Saturday morning to provide residents with activities. The idea of having pet fish at various corners of the home came from Mr Ng, who reared them when he was isolating himself and hiding in his room because of depression. “The fish kept me company,” he said. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN 


Besides Bingo games, healthcare assistant Mr Alan Ng initiated various programmes and activities at the nursing home such as cutlery packing for dementia patients, food carnivals, kopitiam sessions, choir group, and even a mini provision shop run by residents at the nursing home, with the hope that residents have daily activities to look forward to. 
ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN 



Healthcare assistant Mr Alan Ng (in purple) checks on the rest of the group to make sure they keep up as he takes a group of SANH (Buangkok) residents out for breakfast at Buangkok Green. 
ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN 


Accompanied by healthcare assistant Mr Alan Ng (right), SANH (Buangkok) residents Mr Allan Phua (centre) and Mr Ong Chin Teck (left) shop at a Buangkok Green supermarket for food items to be eaten in the afternoon's indoor kopitiam session. 
ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN 


A SANH (Buangkok) resident checks the drawn numbers written on the whiteboard for a Bingo game with the help of healthcare assistant Ms Gomez Raquel Floraide (extreme right), 37, as Mr Alan Ng (extreme left) announces the next number. 
ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN 


Mr Alan Ng (in purple) and SANH (Buangkok) residents (from right) Mr Allan Phua and Mr Ong Chin Teck clean the fish tanks at the nursing home's clubhouse, which is opened every Saturday morning. 
ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN


Mr Alan Ng (in purple), 48, leads (from left) Mr Ong Chin Teck, 57, Mr Allan Phua, 42, and an in-house choir made up of nursing home residents as they learn several songs in preparation for a Mid-Autumn Festival performance. The residents meet weekly for singing sessions in the afternoon. 
ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN 


Mr Alan Ng joins residents at a games booth in the outdoor garden as part of a food carnival that is usually held twice a month. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2017, with the headline 'Guiding others to peace of mind'. Print Edition | Subscribe