A healthy mind isn't a given for anyone

The 13th of September last year began as an ordinary day.

I woke up at 6am and walked my 14-year-old dog, Don. As usual, when we reached the condo, I let him off the leash to let him canter around the compound.

Behind me, a huge SUV came fast up the driveway. It rolled over Don, barely 5m from where I stood. The driver said he didn't see him. My dog was crushed under his wheels right in front of my eyes.

I had to rescue Don from under the car and he died in my arms. Shortly thereafter, I took him to the vet to be cremated. What I had witnessed was etched in my mind and those images kept playing in my head. I decided to see a psychiatrist.

It wasn't my first experience of seeing a psychiatrist. In 2011, I signed up for psychotherapy at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH). For about a year and a half, I went for weekly sessions at IMH. I did it because of my children. Both of them, at different points, suffered from depression.

When we say the word "caregiver", our most instinctive response is to think of the person who needs to be cared for. The caregiver is often a neglected figure, and this, in fact, can have detrimental effects on the quality of care that he or she is able to provide. The caregiver has to be fully at peace with his or her situation in order to be able to perform the role with love and patience. ST FILE PHOTO

I wished to learn, at first hand, the dynamics at play when a mentally unwell person is under treatment. I had consulted a psychiatrist friend and he encouraged me, saying that this would be worthwhile for anyone. However, being mindful of public perception, he gently redirected me to a polyclinic, which would have left no trace (as compared to an IMH record).

But I insisted on going to the IMH; I wished to step inside the shoes of someone undergoing treatment there. I went through about 40 sessions altogether.

This extended period of therapy was indeed an enriching time. It primed me for my efforts to support mental health at Caregivers Alliance (CAL), an organisation that provides training and support for caregivers of persons with mental illness.

Through it, I learnt new things about the mind, the self and what it means to be mentally unwell.

A key lesson is that each one of us has a "mental construct". We think we are whole, buttressed by our beliefs and experiences. We feel safe and secure in this familiar, comfortable self-construct. However, when I was undergoing therapy with the psychiatrist who helped me to peel myself open bit by bit, I discovered the hollowness of how we see ourselves.

The feeling is not unlike the renovation of a home. You knock down a wall here, a wall there, leaving a mess. That was how it was undergoing psychotherapy. I felt unsettled, uncomfortable and less self-assured, even though I am, by nature, a confident person.

Through this journey, I began to appreciate better one's inner core of being. I see this as our "natural self". In modern times especially, we have lost our natural self. Bit by bit, we construct an edifice, a construct which we mistake as the self. A person who builds his or her confidence on such a mental construct is like someone who believes in the safety of a house built on sand.

Don's death was traumatic. After I got home from the vet, I said to myself: "Let me dissolve this grief and anger." Because of my practice of meditation, I knew that I needed to break out of that trap of feelings and images.

Your mind can go into a cul-de-sac with ugly flashbacks, with anger. That's how the mind functions. But when the bad memories keep coming back, do you know how to stop this from recurring so that it doesn't go into a loop and you are trapped in it?

I think that's where my meditation practice helped. It's not about suppressing the bad thoughts. Rather, when they come, you let them ease away rather than becoming prey to an endless traumatic replay. You can come to peace with it if you can release yourself from the trauma.

We tend to think of peace as a condition that we strive towards or when the setting is right. But my experiences have shown me that you can find peace if you tap into that special store inside you. Peace of mind, being at ease with who we are: these are all critical to enjoying a better quality of life, in preserving and sustaining healthy friendships and relationships.

As a caregiver, I learnt early on that the expectations we have of others neglect the other person's needs. Even if we mean well, the truth is that we have acted selfishly, without enough care for the other.

CAL focuses on caregiver training, teaching them how to accommodate and not impose their will. When we say the word "caregiver", our most instinctive response is to think of the person who is ill, the one who needs to be cared for. The caregiver is often a neglected figure, and this, in fact, can have detrimental effects on the quality of care that he or she is able to provide. The caregiver has to be fully at peace with his or her situation in order to be able to perform his or her role with love and patience.

Mental illness carries a stigma in our society. A person who has mental illness is seen as someone who is weak. I can't say that I didn't use to have this way of thinking, especially before my own personal experience of therapy and caregiving. What I have learnt is that life exerts its pressures on all of us and this puts a lot of strain on our mental health.

Soon after I became CEO at the Singapore Exchange, I had to restructure the company. It was a period of great stress for the staff.

The restructuring had to be done, but I also recognised that we should provide support during this difficult time. It's important that as much as you make demands on those who work for you, you are also tending to their frailties and limitations.

A counselling service for staff was set up. Three counsellors were available by appointment, any day of the week. At first, not many people took up the service. But eventually, after people got comfortable with the idea, I was told the counsellors were fully booked.

Support for a healthy state of mind is increasingly important as jobs exert great demands on us. Most people work very long hours and under stress, carrying the burdens of the day home with them.

Mental health issues have conventionally been seen as relevant only to those who have been diagnosed with mental disorders. Yet my journey in understanding the mind has allowed me to see that a healthy mind is not a natural given state for anyone.

And this, I feel, is something that we have to open ourselves to understanding.

  • The writer is a co-founder of Caregivers Alliance Ltd (CAL) and president of the National Council of Social Service (NCSS). He wrote this piece with Ms Yeo Wei Wei, an author, for a publication by CAL in conjunction with its fund-raiser next month.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 10, 2016, with the headline A healthy mind isn't a given for anyone. Subscribe