LIVING WITH INVISIBLE DISABILITIES | TACKLING STIGMA FROM THE COMMUNITY

The art of making friends

Participants at an art therapy class choosing their craft material to make their own jar of memories. Some of them are members of the public while others are people with mental illness.
Participants at an art therapy class choosing their craft material to make their own jar of memories. Some of them are members of the public while others are people with mental illness. PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

A charity has come up with an unusual way to tackle social stigma surrounding those with mental disorders. It has been getting members of the public to sign up for art therapy classes without telling them that several participants have some form of mental illness, be it anxiety issues, depression or schizophrenia.

Through this, the Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH) hopes people will get to interact without any preconceived notions, and come to realise that those with mental disabilities are no different from others, especially when their conditions have stabilised through treatment.

The art therapy sessions, run by SAMH since 2011, are at its Creative Hub at Goodman Arts Centre.

Student Rachel Chay, 20, attended a session because she was curious about the benefits of art therapy. "I didn't know I was sitting next to someone with mental illness and because of that I could talk more freely with her," she says. "Otherwise, I would have held back and been careful about what I said in case some words triggered off something in her."

She adds: "But nothing happened and I realised there is no need for me to be so cautious and, in doing so, inadvertently propagate stigma."

NO PRECONCEIVED NOTIONS

I didn't know I was sitting next to someone with mental illness, and because of that I could talk more freely with her. Otherwise, I would have held back and been careful what I said in case some words triggered off something in her.

STUDENT RACHEL CHAY, who attended an art therapy session run by SAMH.

It is such fears held by others that Ms Amanda Tan (not her real name), 26, has to battle with every day. She has schizophrenia and depression, and often loses sleep at night, worrying what others think of her.

"I hear voices in my head calling me crazy or telling me that they dislike me," says Ms Tan, softly.

During the art therapy session, she interacted with others as they used craft materials to decorate bottles and then later shared what the items in the bottles reminded them of. The task of the day was to create a jar of memories that was symbolic of the sum of their past experiences.

An elderly woman, who had earlier talked about how she felt depressed when her husband came down with dementia, pasted a picture of a car on her bottle. It reminded her of happy days when her father had a second-hand car, which was rare then, and could take her to the seaside.

Ms Chay tied a black ribbon around her bottle, to symbolise how she bottles up her emotions when upset.

Another participant, retired accountant Jessica Lim, 55, says: "Through the interaction, I found that the people here are friendly, less inhibited and they can get along with others well."

Previously, she had the impression that those with mental illness lived in their own world, and that it would be hard to get through to them, based on past experiences with colleagues and friends with mental illness.

It is to generate this kind of awareness and empathy among the community that Ms Jane Goh, SAMH's head of creative services, pushed for the sessions to be open to the public.

Most mental health organisations here run programmes only for their own clients who have been clinically diagnosed with an illness.

She feels strongly about social inclusion because people with mental illness are often isolated.

"Those with mental illness tend to hardly talk and their social life dwindles. It is important for them to feel accepted by the community so that they build up their self-esteem," says Ms Goh.

After years of running such sessions, she says SAMH has begun seeing the fruits of its labour.

"Members of the public become friends with our clients and they have meals together. Some even go on tours together. It is little things like these that keep us going," she says.

For Ms Tan, that day she made a new friend. She says: "I am happy because she is 19 years old. Usually the only people who befriend me are the aunties in church."

Janice Tai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 08, 2016, with the headline 'The art of making friends'. Print Edition | Subscribe