When Covid-19 restrictions in 2021 put a halt to Mr Jonathan Kuek’s volunteering at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), he used the downtime to start social enterprise Total Wellness Initiative Singapore (TWIS).
“Volunteering so closely with the people at IMH since 2014 gave me a deeper insight into the humanity that exists beyond the invisible walls society has put up around the hospital. The patients and staff are some of the most amazing, kind, generous, and warm people you’ll ever come across,” says the 32-year-old, who used to be a research assistant at IMH.
Mr Kuek is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney and is due to graduate this year.
Having been in the mental health space for nine years, Mr Kuek had observed gaps in how people with mental health issues were supported, and the care was frequently not holistic enough – there was a lack of prevention-oriented organisations within the mental health space where the focus was mainly on psychological and emotional issues.
A more well-rounded approach to wellness and well-being needed to be adopted – one that also factored in the social, occupational, financial, physical, creative, digital, intellectual, spiritual, and the environmental aspects of wellness, notes Mr Kuek.
He adds: “Covid-19 has helped to raise significant awareness about the importance of being more intentional in the way we live life, and people are starting to better understand what matters to them.”
A ground-up movement powered by 100 volunteers, TWIS aims to bring peer-reviewed research on wellness to the general public, and to encourage them to take the first step towards becoming more aware of and making intentional choices towards greater wellness in their lives.
TWIS’ guiding framework is a unique 10 dimensional perspective of wellness coupled with a focus on prevention – helping people to change their thoughts, behaviours, and feelings about wellness and well-being in a sustainable and achievable manner. The framework was developed by expanding upon the existing eight dimensions of wellness framework, and adding the creative and digital dimensions that are also based in the literature.
As co-founder, Mr Kuek develops programmes based on existing wellness-oriented research and executes them alongside volunteers. For example, mindfulness theories and practice are incorporated into activities such as terrarium making and art jamming, addressing the spiritual, psychological, and creative dimensions of wellness.
“I knew I didn’t have the training to be an interventionist, and I was not aiming to be a clinician; so I decided to use my expertise in research to bring to life various psychoeducational and actionable material, programmes, and events, grounded in evidence – all in a bid to prevent mental health decline,” he explains.
Educating the community on mental health
Despite having limited resources, TWIS has brought various wellness-centric programmes to the public through the support of its volunteers. It partners organisations to conduct wellness-planning workshops, and also engages in community education by creating and sharing content related to wellness and well-being on its website and social media platforms.
Last year, the social enterprise held an event titled Design for Wellness for people in the community to learn more about TWIS’ 10 dimensions of wellness, and create digital or hand-drawn images that represented what wellness meant to them.
TWIS received over 90 unique submissions, which were incorporated into 350 decals and displayed around Woodlands Regional Library.
“These wellness checkpoints served as visual and artistic reminders of the importance of consistent and proactive maintenance of well-being,” says Mr Kuek.
To Mr Kuek’s delight, TWIS also managed to secure grants and funds to work on more projects as well as hire its first full timer earlier this year.
Filling a gap in the mental health sector
Mr Kuek shares that he pursued psychology after graduating from James Cook University’s foundation programme in 2013 aspiring to do clinical work.
“Initially, I thought that I would only be working with people experiencing mental health conditions. Later, I learnt that there were actually many more options available for psychology graduates,” he says.
Mr Kuek graduated with first class honours in psychology from JCU in 2017. His participation in JCU’s EMAS peer-tutoring programme gave him an opportunity to explore being an educator where he found joy in helping other students with their work. This contributed to his decision to pursue a career in academia.
In 2016, he got his first research assistant role under Dr Peter Chew, a senior lecturer in psychology; and subsequently, Associate Professor Carol Choo, who specialises in clinical psychology. This position allowed him to collaborate with researchers from IMH and enabled him to learn more about research techniques.
Within the same year, Mr Kuek was awarded a conference grant to present at an international mental health conference organised by the World Federation for Mental Health, where he co-presented with JCU’s Dr Foo Koong Hean, one of Mr Kuek’s first mentors on mental health and psychology-oriented topics.
In his final year at JCU, he particularly enjoyed doing his honours thesis, which studied the various organisational factors that influenced volunteer motivation. “It was my first official piece of research that was completely conceptualised and executed by me. It felt amazing to contribute to a body of knowledge that I felt passionate about,” he recalls.
Although his work did not lead to any publications, it deepened his interest in research. His thesis supervisor Dr Divjyot Kaur gave him free reign and lots of support to explore and work on the topics he enjoyed.
“Dr Kaur was supportive, caring, but also intellectually demanding. She pushed and challenged me to do better, and groomed me to become a more competent researcher, to think outside the box, and continually aim for improvement,” he says. They have kept in touch over the years and are even working together on a research project now.
Mr Kuek says that his JCU experience helped him to gain the confidence and competence needed to complete his PhD successfully. The theoretical and research foundations he gained during his time at JCU has also allowed him to use his academic research to better society.
“Look inwards and take the time to understand what motivates and excites you in the field. While many students may have enrolled wanting to do clinical work in the mental health sector, there is also so much meaning in the research side of psychology and using these skills to bring psychological research to a broader audience.”
Visit this website to find out more about the Bachelor of Psychological Science offered at the Singapore campus of James Cook University.