The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2019

Angie Chew: Lighting a candle for those with mental health woes

Mindfulness helped her out of a dark place. Today, Angie Chew helps people by teaching them about mindfulness at her Brahm Centre.
Ms Angie Chew gave up her high-paying job to devote her time to Brahm Centre, a charity she had set up where people can get health education as well as emotional and mental support. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
Ms Angie Chew gave up her high-paying job to devote her time to Brahm Centre, a charity she had set up where people can get health education as well as emotional and mental support. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Ms Angie Chew has been through the depths of sorrow, emerged stronger each time, and now helps others in distress.

Her mother died in 2011 at the age of 87 after suffering from depression, dementia and stroke. The stress of looking after her mother put a strain on Ms Chew's marriage, which eventually broke down.

By then, she had also endured years of emotional bullying at work from bosses who often shouted at her.

At the height of Ms Chew's depression, she had breathing difficulties and chest pains - symptoms of anxiety attacks.

Grief-stricken and yearning to refocus her life, she turned to mindfulness, the practice of paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way.

Some ways to train the mind and strengthen the brain to focus in this manner include breath-awareness and movement exercises.

In 2012, Ms Chew set up Brahm Centre, a charity where people can get health education as well as emotional and mental support.

"After having gone through such a painful period in my life, I decided that instead of condemning the darkness, I wanted to light a candle," said the 56-year-old former computer professional.

"When I was supporting my mother - and not knowing what dementia was and how to care for her - I realised there was a big gap in the support available for people going through similar situations.

 
 
 

"That is when I decided to open Brahm Centre to help people learn to support themselves and their loved ones through mindfulness."

The centre provides free health education. It also offers other kinds of support such as counselling, weekly exercise and physio-gym sessions. The centre also teaches mindfulness skills to help people cope better with stress.

In 2015, Ms Chew gave up her $20,000-a-month salary at a multinational technology company and took a 60 per cent pay cut to fully devote her time to the charity.

Today, there are three Brahm Centres - in Novena, Simei and MacPherson.

A new 8,000 sq ft centre is scheduled to open in Tampines in May next year. Since 2012, Brahm Centre has benefited more than 33,000 people through its programmes.

 

The beneficiaries range from the elderly to caregivers and students.

The centre also partners healthcare groups such as the Agency for Integrated Care, hospitals and polyclinics to reach out to and befriend vulnerable elderly people.

In response to the increase in depression and suicide cases among the young, Ms Chew set up AssistLine in August. The helpline offers support to students and parents in distress. To date, the centre has received more than 200 calls from more than 100 individuals.

They include two suicidal cases that Ms Chew and the centre have supported through counselling.

"One of them was extremely suicidal. We have been supporting him and his parents with counselling, and helping him (get) appropriate psychiatric care to stabilise and recover from his mental condition," she said.

"It is not an easy job, but I don't see this as work. I see it as a service with a purpose to make a difference while I can.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2019, with the headline 'Lighting a candle for those with mental health woes'. Print Edition | Subscribe