Mental health advocate sets up charity to guide community in suicide prevention

The charity teaches participants to recognise signs of suicidal ideation.
The charity teaches participants to recognise signs of suicidal ideation.ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - In her early years of volunteering with families in crisis, mental health advocate Dr Sally Thio encountered a young girl in need of help. Separated from her father and sister, the girl was struggling, trying to cope with her parents' divorce and her upcoming exams.

Dr Thio said: "One night she called me and said 'everything is better' and that she wanted to treat me to breakfast the next morning. She seemed so happy when we had that breakfast.

"Unfortunately, that was the last time I would see her. The reason she felt better that morning was because she had decided to end her life."

The traumatic episode led Dr Thio to devote over 30 years to improving the lives of persons with mental health issues, culminating in her setting up local charity Caring for Life (CFL) in April last year.

The charity, which aims to establish a community approach to suicide prevention, was founded by Dr Thio and philanthropists Keith Chua and Hsieh Fu Hua.

Since August last year, it has trained more than 300 participants from different organisations through a customised programme, which teaches participants to recognise signs of suicidal ideation at the workplace, school or within the home.

The programme is called LIFE - an acronym for Listen, Inquire directly, Find lifelines, and Engage professional help.

Through it, participants learn to recognise signs, engage individuals with suicidal ideation, and connect them with community resources for suicide intervention.

It also stresses safety in engaging conversations that foster open talk to address suicide.

Mr Chua, who serves as the board chairman of the charity, said: "The intention of CFL is not to duplicate the existing services in this area. Where we fit in is in the early intervention and prevention category, where a lot more can be done.

"Because of stigma, many people with mental health issues are not seeking professional help. We hope CFL's programme will help the community gain a better understanding and also enable those who are not yet seeking proper help to do so in time."

Dr Thio, who serves as CFL's executive director, sought to develop the LIFE programme's curriculum with a strong emphasis on community effort.

She said: "We tend to do better with a strong social network of friends and family. As such, I am led to believe that suicide prevention efforts must involve the community, especially the loved ones and close friends of the individuals at-risk of suicide."

CFL has collaborated with organisations such as the Institute of Mental Health, Samaritans of Singapore and ground-up movement SGFamilies.

Ms Carol Loi, co-founder of SGFamilies, said she participated in the programme to support those struggling with suicidal ideation as well as their next-of-kin.

"The programme helped me better understand how to broach the difficult topic of suicide and recognise that bringing the issue out in the open is helpful," she said.

Despite the progress she has witnessed and initiated in Singapore's mental health sector over the years, Dr Thio still remembers that young girl who ended her life years ago and asks herself the same questions:

"The questions from back then still ring in my ears today. What else could I have done? What did I miss? What now?

"If there is one thing I can take from that incident, it is this: I should have Listened and Inquired more, Found a Lifeline and Engaged a Professional's Help."

Readers can find out more information about CFL and the LIFE programme at this website.

  • Helplines

  • Samaritans Of Singapore: 1800-221-4444

    Singapore Association For Mental Health: 1800-283-7019

    Institute Of Mental Health's Mobile Crisis Service: 6389-2222

    Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800

    Silver Ribbon: 6386-1928

    Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788