From troubled teen to social worker: He now wants to be the mentor he never had

He used to have run-ins with the law but now serves young people who are at-risk of, or with mental health conditions

Mr Eric Sng is heartened to find many of the troubled youths he has helped in his 14-year career in social services leading fulfilling lives now. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA

Having survived a troubled childhood that consisted of run-ins with the law, Mr Eric Sng sees himself in young offenders.

“I did not have a trusted adult to confide in, seek guidance from or even correct me in a firm yet loving way,” he says.

Mr Sng, 37, remembers Tom (not his real name), a teenager he met while overseeing a programme for young offenders of petty crimes. His colleagues found it difficult to break the ice with Tom as he was constantly guarded, but they soon learnt that he came from a broken family and was bullied at school.

“Some of his offending tendencies were, in a way, an expression of his personal frustrations. The adults in his life had let him down, time and again,” Mr Sng explains.

A victim of bullying himself, Mr Sng rallied his colleagues to support the young man wholeheartedly. 

Over time, Tom came to believe that the social workers genuinely cared for him and started opening up. He emerged from the programme as a happier and more confident person, and even joined a support group for youths yearning for greater self discovery and meaningful peer relations.

“We were sincere in connecting with him, keen to hear his side of the story and treated him as someone with dignity and worth,” he says.

Mr Sng is happy to share that Tom is currently employed and pursuing further studies on a part-time basis – he has also found friends whom he can rely on in times of distress. 

Making a difference

It is getting through to troubled youths like Tom that has kept Mr Sng on the job for 14 years, after graduating with a Bachelor of Psychology from the Singapore campus of James Cook University (JCU) in 2008.

“It is a joy to see many of them leading meaningful lives now, having wonderful careers and starting their own families. Recently, I met up with two youths I used to support and they expressed gratitude about me journeying and speaking words of truth and life, with love, at a time when they needed support and guidance most,” he says.

As the programme head at SHINE Children & Youth Services, Mr Sng oversees the youth mental health service that serves young people who are at-risk of, or with mental health conditions, as well as their caregivers. He has served as a guest speaker or panel judge for youth mental health hackathons, and thereafter, a mentor, to guide youth groups in implementing ground-up initiatives to advance youth mental health causes.

Mr Sng’s role has become increasingly critical these days. A recent study reported that 1 in 3 young people in Singapore suffer from mental health symptoms. He notes that local young people are facing challenges in an amplified manner. For instance, on the educational front, students face greater expectations due to increased regional and global competition in education and employment. 

Furthermore, as social media becomes an integral part of our lives, young people have greater access to information and opportunities for comparison with people from all over the world. “This places an enormous amount of stress on our youth to excel and thrive. At times, they are even stressed out wondering if they are leading lives that are meaningful and exciting enough, as they witness others having amazing posts each day,” he notes.

Youth can turn to community-based mental health professionals like Mr Sng to make sense of their mental states and find the right kind of support. Social workers also encourage people to seek help by organising roadshows, talks and campaigns to raise awareness of  mental health literacy. 

They also train volunteers as peer supporters, whom young people may feel more willing to open up to. These volunteers may also reinforce therapeutic interventions in the everyday lives of these youth.

Ready to serve

After more than a decade, Mr Sng still remembers his JCU experience fondly, and is grateful to the university for providing him with the required knowledge and basic competencies to start as well as to excel in social work. 

Mr Sng recalls picking JCU as he thought it provided focused and high-quality studies in the field of psychology with a wide range of modules including forensic, social, organisational and neuroscience, that offered prospective students the opportunity to develop holistically and give them the ability to explore their interests for future specialisations.

In addition, the course is also accredited by the Australian Psychological Society – a significant advantage that other comparable courses do not accord. The accelerated programme also ensured that Mr Sng could graduate and enter the field in two years, compared with other programmes that needed at least three years.

“The knowledge gained via my undergraduate journey formed the basis of my professional body of knowledge and personal practice model,” he says. Even when pursuing his post-graduate diploma in social work later on, this knowledge continued to be relevant and provided an advantage as he was familiar with the framework of social sciences.

Mr Sng and Dr Teoh Ai Ni, a lecturer who made an impact on him at JCU. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA

The course also gave him the opportunity to meet wonderful course mates, lecturers and tutors, some of whom he still keeps in touch with. They became powerful networks in the sector, and are just a call away for quick discussions. Lecturers Dr Teoh Ai Ni and Dr Patrick Lin in particular were not only knowledgeable in their field, but also very patient and understanding towards Mr Sng and his classmates. 

He shares: “Throughout my JCU experience, I gained a lot of personal insights, which strengthened a conviction I had since young – to be there for youth in pain and be the mentor I never had in my youth. 

“Apart from increased self-awareness, being involved in this work has also given me some degree of healing and closure for my past.”

As he nears two decades in social services, Mr Sng works towards continual improvement as an effective leader so that he can continue to give his team members the platforms and opportunities to thrive. He also hopes to build up more practitioners and young leaders in the sector to make an even bigger difference for the next generation.

“From a personal development perspective, the course provides you the opportunity to learn about human behaviour and more importantly, gain insights about yourself. The latter is wonderful for self-discovery and enables one to strengthen their sense of self that is essential not only for work, but for living a fulfilling life,” shares Mr Sng.

Visit this website to find out more about the Bachelor of Psychological Science offered at the Singapore campus of James Cook University.

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