It Changed My Life

'My nephew killed my sis but I can't blame him'

Above: Ms Jesudason riding a horse up a mountain in Nepal, not long after she was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. Below: Ms Jesudason with her son and sister in a photo taken in 1995 when Mallika had just moved back to Singapore. Ms Leela Jesudason
Ms Leela Jesudason with former IT professional Eric Lee and psychiatrist Munidasa Winslow at Promises Clinic. Ms Jesudason felt she had to do something after her nephew, who has schizophrenia, killed his mother, who was her elder sister. This led to the setting up of PSALT Care, which runs self-help support groups for those living with mental illness and addictions, and works with students to raise awareness about mental health.PHOTOS: LEELA JESUDASON ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
Above: Ms Jesudason riding a horse up a mountain in Nepal, not long after she was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. Below: Ms Jesudason with her son and sister in a photo taken in 1995 when Mallika had just moved back to Singapore. Ms Leela Jesudason
Ms Jesudason with her son and sister in a photo taken in 1995 when Mallika had just moved back to Singapore. PHOTOS: LEELA JESUDASON ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
Above: Ms Jesudason riding a horse up a mountain in Nepal, not long after she was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. Below: Ms Jesudason with her son and sister in a photo taken in 1995 when Mallika had just moved back to Singapore. Ms Leela Jesudason
Ms Jesudason riding a horse up a mountain in Nepal, not long after she was diagnosed with a brain aneurysmPHOTOS: LEELA JESUDASON ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Brutal murder leads PR veteran to get help for people with mental illness like her nephew

Leela Jesudason delivered an emotional eulogy at her elder sister's wake three years ago. "Her death," she declared, "will not be in vain."

Her sister Mallika died in horrifying circumstances. On May 27, 2012, the 56-year-old office administrator was stabbed in the neck and nearly decapitated by her schizophrenic son, Sujay.

"I lost my sister but her son doesn't have much of a life ahead of him too. That's already two lives lost," says Ms Jesudason.

Her 34-year-old nephew, Sujay Solomon Sutherson, is now looking at life imprisonment or at least 20 years in jail after being found guilty of culpable homicide earlier this month.

The 50-year-old continues: "The rest of the family will also walk away with wounds which will not heal."

PURPOSE IN LIFE

I have to do all these things so that my time on earth counts. My purpose in life now

is helping to keep mental illness under control... I need to do something more hard-hitting and impactful. I want to shift the needle in the way mental illness is talked about and handled here in Singapore.

MS LEELA JESUDASON, on her desire to raise awareness about mental health in Singapore

The public relations veteran made good on her promise at her sister's wake. About half a year after the tragedy, she got together with her elder brother Daniel, psychiatrist Munidasa Winslow and former IT professional Eric Lee Meng Kai to set up PSALT Care.

The outfit runs various self-help support groups for those living with mental illness and addictions, and works with students to raise awareness about mental health.

The same team - with the exception of Mr Lee - also set up Little Bells, a non-profit, to build orphanages in Nepal. "It is in memory of my sister. She was always doing volunteer work like helping the illiterate with their tax forms and other paperwork in church," says Ms Jesudason, who is head of consumer marketing at Ogilvy & Mather.

Social advocacy and philanthropy are new chapters in her already colourful and eventful life.

The mother of two boys, aged eight and 22, has worked as a missionary, headed a public relations company, and gone through two marriages, and is a walking time bomb, thanks to an aneurysm in her brain.

An aneurysm is a weak spot in a blood vessel which can cause it to balloon and possibly burst.

"If it bursts, I could have a stroke, suffer severe brain damage or even die," says Ms Jesudason, who was diagnosed last year. She has to be careful to avoid triggers - such as getting angry or vigorous exercise - which could cause a stroke.

Well-spoken and expressive, the dimunitive woman is the youngest of three children of an inspector of schools and a housewife.

"Theirs was an arranged marriage and it was tumultuous," she says of her parents. "My father was brilliant and could speak seven languages, including Greek and Hebrew; my mother was a village beauty from Tiruchirappalli. They were not in the same intellectual league."

She attended Marymount Primary and Westlake Secondary and did well in school, but was booted out of Catholic Junior College after one year because she failed her second language.

Around that time, her mother was diagnosed with Stage Four breast cancer. "So I looked after her while studying for my A levels as a private candidate," she says.

Her sister Mallika, who had agreed to an arranged marriage with a businessman from Chennai two years earlier in 1979, came back to help her. "She was more like a mum to me," says Ms Jesudason. Their mother died three months later, and her sister returned to India.

Their father got married again, to a divorcee with three children. He died in 2001.

After passing her A levels, Ms Jesudason found a job with the publishing firm behind The Bookworm Club, a series of children's books.

She did well, was promoted to editor, wrote several of the books and started The Bookworm Club magazine with her boss.

On her 21st birthday, she married a graphic designer.

Next, having completed a correspondence degree course in divinity, she and her husband quit their jobs to become missionaries in the Philippines. "The missionary group was doing literacy work with the indigenous tribes and I was doing government relations, living in different villages and letting the authorities know what we were doing. I was in cross-cultural communications long before it became fashionable," she says.

In 1993, when she was 27 and pregnant with her first child, she was hit by a debilitating bout of typhoid. "We decided to come back home," she says.

Unfortunately a happy ending did not await the couple. They drifted apart and went their separate ways after the child was born.

"It was tough. I'd just had a child and was an ex-missionary with limited world skills who had to leave a fairly rosy cocoon to deal with the harsh reality of paying bills and surviving on my own," she recalls.

Not long after, her sister returned from India because her husband's business ventures had floundered and she hoped job prospects would be better in Singapore.

Mallika was now the mother of three - Sujay, the eldest, was 14, and his siblings, 10 and eight.

Ms Jesudason took them in. Together with her own son and helper, the seven of them lived in a four-room flat in Bukit Batok.

"My sister and I became even closer. We were two single mothers trying to cope," she says, adding that her sister's marriage also broke up barely two years later.

Mallika became a church secretary while Ms Jesudason found work in a public relations company.

Her first project was handling public relations for The Phantom Of The Opera, the popular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical which was staged at Kallang Theatre.

"I was at Kallang every night; I could probably sing all the parts," she says with a laugh.

Life was hard; she and her sister scraped by.

"I developed an ulcer and lost so much weight. I went from 45kg to 37kg and lost my ass," she says, laughing again.

Things got better when she landed a job with The Peak, a lifestyle magazine. "I learnt a lot. I started out as a sub-editor but was

soon landing a lot of writing assignments. I slowly came into my own," she says.

Three years later, she became the managing editor of East magazine.

"I blossomed into a stronger person and felt very confident in the job. I interviewed Imelda Marcos, and that was one of the highlights of my career," she says.

Around that time, she met the man who was to become her second husband, a German managing director of a plastics manufacturer.

Life seemed good. Her sister managed to buy her own Housing Board flat near hers and Ms Jesudason went on to scale even greater heights in her career.

She was marketing director at Sincere watch company and also became the regional brand director for French jeweller Mauboussin.

"I really learnt how to run a business," she says, recalling how she helped to open Mauboussin stores in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

In 2004, she married her German fiance and, at 42, became pregnant with her second son.

All this while, she remained close to her sister and her two nephews and niece.

She relates how Sujay began getting difficult in his late teens. He made it through university, but his behaviour later changed and he was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 26.

Caring for him was hard in the years that followed, she says, and it was a struggle to ensure he took his medication.

Things finally came to a tragic head in May 2012.

Ms Jesudason recalls that she was in London on a business trip and having ice cream with her stepbrother in Leicester Square when she received the chilling phone call from her brother's wife.

Sujay had killed his mother.

According to autopsy reports, he stabbed his mother twice and tried to decapitate her and burn her body.

When his siblings could not find her, they contacted their uncle - a former pastor turned head of a mental health facility - who found Mallika's body hidden under Sujay's bed.

One of the first things that Ms Jesudason did when she returned was to engage a lawyer for her nephew. "I don't hold it against him. I couldn't. He's mentally ill," she says. She and her brother speak to their nephew via video link a few times a month.

"Each time I see him, I will cry. It's so sad," she says.

It took her a long time and several counselling sessions to get over her sister's death. Her marriage broke up not long after but she and her ex-husband remain very good friends.

"For nearly five months, I would wake up at 1.48 every night," says Ms Jesudason, who reckons that might be the time when she answered the call about her sister's death.

Her mind constantly swirled with scenarios. "Could we have done more to prevent this? There were so many maybe's and what if's," she says.

PSALT Care was formed because she and her fellow founders saw a need for support groups for mental health patients and their loved ones.

"We're still in our infancy, but we hold four or more sessions each week. Each session attracts between eight and 10 people," she says. The sessions, helmed by trained facilitators, are held at Promises, a mental health centre run by Dr Winslow in Novena Medical Centre.

PSALT Care, she adds, is in discussions with the National Council of Social Services and the Social Service Institute to bring proven approaches to mental health recovery from the US.

The decision to start Little Bells came about because Ms Jesudason, her brother and Dr Winslow - their childhood friend - wanted to honour Mallika's memory.

"Nepal is also one of the poorest countries in the world. My brother knows people who have started orphanages there. We manage everything ourselves," she says.

She has made three trips to Nepal to plan and oversee construction of the orphanage. It is located in a remote mountain village called Australian Camp. "There are already children waiting to get in," she says.

Because of her aneurysm, she is even more determined to make sure PSALT Care and Little Bells succeed. "I have to do all these things so that my time on earth counts," says Ms Jesudason, who has ruled out an operation to remove the aneurysm because it carries major risks.

"My purpose in life now is helping to keep mental illness under control," she adds.

Candidly, she admits that she is still trying to figure out how to raise awareness about mental health in Singapore.

"I need to do something more hard-hitting and impactful. I want to shift the needle in the way mental illness is talked about and handled here in Singapore."

SUPPORTED BY STANDARD CHARTERED

Look out for Wong Kim Hoh's upcoming book commissioned by Standard Chartered Bank. It Changed My Life is a compilation of inspirational stories from this series, and is part of the bank's initiative to celebrate Singapore's Golden Jubilee.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 30, 2015, with the headline ''My nephew killed my sis but I can't blame him''. Print Edition | Subscribe