ST Singaporean of the Year nominee: People looked at mental health advocate as if she was crazy

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When Ms Porsche Poh started Silver Ribbon (Singapore) in 2006 to fight the stigma against mental illness, some people asked why she wanted to tackle the issue. Now more people are open to mental well being and seeking counseling.

SINGAPORE - When Ms Porsche Poh, 50, started Silver Ribbon (Singapore) in 2006 to dispel the stigma linked to mental illness, she was told she was crazy.

Ms Poh, the charity's executive director, said: "Some people looked at me like I was an alien.

"I had to beg for attention to focus on mental health issues and the stigma against it. I had to beg for funding. It was really tough."

The charity has come a long way since those early days.

And so has the attention paid to mental health issues, with more resources being pumped into addressing it at the national level.

"Everyone is talking about mental health now," said Ms Poh, who is a nominee for The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year Award, together with Silver Ribbon (Singapore).

The Covid-19 pandemic has also led to more people seeking help for mental health woes, she added.

An only child, Ms Poh became an orphan at the age of 18 when her mother died of cancer. Her father had died after a stroke when she was seven.

"Suddenly, I was all alone in the world and I felt very lost," she said, adding that she was thankful she did not suffer a mental breakdown after her mother died.

Knowing how difficult and lonely life can get, and searching for meaning in life, Ms Poh joined the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) as a member of the administrative support staff, to raise awareness about psychosis, a mental illness.

She noticed that the stigma against mental illness stopped many patients from seeking help.

"Some parents said they would send their children to the IMH for treatment over their dead body."

Many people are also reluctant to seek treatment for conditions like depression, over fears that a medical diagnosis could derail their careers.

"They don't want to be labelled as someone with a mental illness."

With her IMH colleagues Helen Lee and Sally Choo, she founded Silver Ribbon (Singapore). Ms Poh was the first staff member of the charity, which now has seven employees.

It provides free counselling to those who need emotional support, and runs talks and workshops in schools and workplaces to raise awareness about mental health conditions, among other things.

It has been advocating for mental health issues such as the decriminalisation of attempted suicide and getting companies to stop asking job seekers to declare if they have a mental illness.

The Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices said, in an addition to its guidelines in January last year, that asking job applicants to declare mental health conditions without good reason is discriminatory.

Last February, as fears of Covid-19 infections rose, Silver Ribbon started providing online or phone counselling in addition to face-to-face counselling.

It counselled 313 people who sought help at the charity for the first time last year, more than double the 158 in 2019.

They included youth, parents, seniors and migrant workers affected by the restrictions, isolation, marital issues or other stresses brought on by the pandemic.

Ms Poh said: "People are struggling with feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and uncertainty."

She added: "Mental health is everybody's business. Everyone has a part to play in advocating for and increasing the acceptance of people with mental health conditions."

To vote for the Singaporean of the Year 2021, go to https://str.sg/soty21votenow. Voting ends Jan 7, 7pm.

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