No more clashing voices in the head

Ahead of World Mental Health Day on Oct 10, Mr Jumaat Osman, 49, shares the story of his recovery from schizophrenia, one of many mental health illnesses in Singapore.

For 12 years, Mr Jumaat Osman, 49, spent most of his time cooped up at home, often hiding in his bedroom in the three-room flat he shares with his mother.

After he was retrenched from his work as a storeman, he had taken care of his elderly father until September 2001, when his father died.

Shortly after, Mr Jumaat started to avoid people and would sometimes speak to himself, said his sister Hamidah Osman, 54, who works in a library.

The family did not think much of it initially because Mr Jumaat had no history of mental illness.

He had always been polite and soft-spoken, Madam Hamidah said.

But when Mr Jumaat's behaviour did not improve over the months, his sister sensed that something was wrong and wanted him to see a doctor at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).


He's one of the best part-timers under my charge. At the start, he needed a bit more guidance, but I believe that everyone deserves a chance.

MR PANKAJ DHINGRA, 29, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen district manager, on the progress Mr Jumaat has made at work.

But their mother, Madam Siti Suki, 80, a retiree, said no, fearing that people would look down on her son.

Madam Hamidah could only watch as her sibling's condition worsened.

While Mr Jumaat cannot recall most of what he experienced during those years, he remembers hearing the voices of two men who were constantly bickering.

"I was scared of the voices but I didn't know what to do. So I listened to music with my headphones and tried to stay calm," he said.

When the voices became too much to handle, he shouted at them. But they never went away.

There were also instances when Mr Jumaat looked in the mirror and saw his head and body increase in size. It terrified him but he could not explain it to anyone.

He endured this for 12 years before he finally received help in 2013.

Madam Hamidah, who remained close to him through the years, remembers the day her mother agreed to let her brother go to IMH.

Mr Jumaat was beginning to show signs of aggression. He had threatened to hit visitors with a pot.

His mother then decided that it was better he seek professional help, than be arrested in case he unintentionally hurt someone.

Some of the bowls Mr Jumaat made during the time he spent learning the craft at Boon's Pottery in Tanglin Place. Each creation is carefully wrapped and stored in Mr Jumaat's room. PHOTOS: CAROLINE CHIA

He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was warded at IMH for about six weeks before being allowed home as he was not violent.

He continued to receive outpatient treatment. Through counselling sessions, therapy and with medication, Mr Jumaat's condition improved. He took up pottery classes at IMH as a form of therapy, and he became very good at it.

Madam Hamidah, determined to see her brother well again, made it a point to contact him regularly.

She also took him out to places like the zoo, Istana and museums and encouraged him to do simple tasks such as throwing out the rubbish and keeping the home clean.

"I wanted him to know that he was still part of our family. I treated him as a normal person," she said.

In 2014, Ms Bee See Roei, 30, an occupational therapist with IMH, observed that Mr Jumaat was responding well to treatment and asked if he was keen to get a job.

He was apprehensive at first, because he lacked confidence, and needed a lot of encouragement before agreeing to work again.

In March last year, he joined a vocational training programme at IMH where he learnt social and interpersonal skills, and slowly regained some confidence.

He also worked at a cafe in IMH for two months to get the hang of the work.

In June last year, he was hired by Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. During his first few weeks on the job, he was slow and kept to himself. But he got faster over time and now manages the entire dining area on his own on most days.

Mr Jumaat has increased his working hours and now works six days a week in the evenings. Being able to earn more money gives him a greater sense of accomplishment.

"He's one of the best part-timers under my charge," said Mr Pankaj Dhingra, 29, Mr Jumaat's district manager. "At the start, he needed a bit more guidance, but I believe that everyone deserves a chance," he added.

This March, Mr Jumaat was picked to represent IMH and Singapore in the 2016 International Abilympics, held in Bordeaux, France. The Abilympics is an international vocational skills competition for people with disabilities. It is held once every three to five years.

That was the first time Mr Jumaat had flown on a plane. To show their support, nearly 20 of his relatives turned up at the airport to send him off.

His family was proud and happy for him.

To commemorate World Mental Health Day, there will be a carnival and walk at the Playspace@*SCAPE this Saturday (Oct 8) from 10.30am-3pm. There will also be talks by mental health professionals. Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob will be the guest of honour.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 06, 2016, with the headline 'No more clashing voices in the head'. Print Edition | Subscribe