Forum: Misperceptions, stereotypes can negatively affect people who have mental illness

On Wednesday, the Committee of Privileges heard the expert testimony of Dr Christopher Cheok, a psychiatrist, on whether former Workers' Party MP Raeesah Khan's psychological faculties were impaired when she made her statements in Parliament (Raeesah didn't have any mental disorder that would lead her to lie: IMH expert, Dec 23).

While he assessed her to be of sound mind, many misperceptions and stereotypes were put forth to him over the session.

As co-founder of the Total Wellness Initiative Singapore, and a mental health researcher, I feel it would be pertinent to expand upon some of the issues that surfaced.

First, dissociation is not a mental illness. It is a symptom that may be an indicator of a mental illness.

In the case of Ms Khan, Dr Cheok said she did not have post-traumatic stress disorder and did not suffer from dissociation between Aug 3 and Dec 3.

The more significant issue here was the multiple attempts to associate dissociation with lying and false memory creation, or characterise it as something which could be turned off and on at will.

These suggestions do a genuine disservice to individuals who experience dissociation and who may suffer from its effects.

It further stigmatises and casts unfair aspersions on them as individuals.

Second, symptoms of a mental illness do not equate to having a mental illness. To preface this statement, it should not matter if you have a mental illness, but symptoms alone are not sufficient for a diagnosis of one.

When psychological or psychiatric assessments are conducted, function is often a critical variable considered in deriving a specific diagnostic outcome. Dr Cheok put it best when he said "many people living in our urban society would undergo different stressors from work, family life and society in general, but just because you have certain stress and emotional symptoms doesn't mean you have a psychiatric disorder".

Lastly, high-profile cases such as this - in which the entire nation and perhaps even people outside of Singapore are watching - tend to influence the existing narrative regarding mental health and illness disproportionately.

I hope that people who write about such issues, talk about them or even consider using them in such situations, will do so responsibly.

We should be careful of colouring other people who experience mental health conditions in a particular light for the sake of furthering our agendas.

People consuming related media should also be critical and make their own decisions only after they have gone through the source.

Mental illnesses do not discriminate or stigmatise, and neither should we.

Jonathan Kuek Han Loong

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