Recovering from schizophrenia: She once thought she had superpowers to talk to the TV set

Before she was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2007, Ms Valerie Liu heard voices in her head. Today, she rarely hears them, thanks to the right medication, and counselling and support from health professionals and her mother. PHOTO: COURTESY OF VALER
Before she was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2007, Ms Valerie Liu heard voices in her head. Today, she rarely hears them, thanks to the right medication, and counselling and support from health professionals and her mother. PHOTO: COURTESY OF VALERIE LIU

When Ms Valerie Liu was in her early 20s, she thought she was a deity with superpowers that allowed her to talk to the radio and her television set.

The voices in her head kept telling her that her neighbours were watching her and conspiring with her mother against her.

This went on for a long time, until she was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2007.

Today, the 38-year-old rarely hears these voices, thanks to the right medication and plenty of counselling and support from health professionals as well as her mother, who is her main caregiver.

World Schizophrenia Day was observed on May 24, as it is every year, to raise awareness for patients like Ms Liu, for whom more help is now available.

"Compared with a decade ago, things have gotten so much better. In my work, I talk to others, as someone who has lived through the experience of having schizophrenia", said Ms Liu, who is now an executive and peer support specialist at the Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH).

She coordinates talks and workshops to help others dealing with mental health issues.

"I really understand what they're going through. There was no such person to help me in my journey to recovery when I needed it back then," she added.

Dr Charmaine Tang, consultant and head of the Early Psychosis Intervention Programme at the Institute of Mental Health, said it is heartening to see more being done to address the stigma surrounding mental health in recent years.

This includes the "emergence of a peer-led recovery-oriented movement", which refers to having people with shared experiences help others with their mental health recovery efforts.

Those suffering from schizophrenia interpret reality abnormally and experience hallucinations, delusions or disordered thinking that impairs daily functioning.

  • HELPLINES

  • • National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868

    • Institute of Mental Health's Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222

    • Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019

    • Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444

    • Silver Ribbon Singapore: 6385-3714

    • Fei Yue's Online Counselling Service: www.eC2.sg

    • Tinkle Friend (for primary school-aged children): 1800-274-4788

About one in 100 people globally will develop schizophrenia in their lifetime, said Dr Tang.

Ms Liu finds that working full time helps with her condition. "Being employed gives me a sense of confidence and allows me to build relationships with people," she said.

She has also become better at managing the voices she still hears occasionally. "I know now that the voices are not real," she told The Straits Times in a video call.

Mr Jackson Ee, who has worked as a senior security officer for the past five years, is also open about his experience with schizophrenia.

He said: "I believe I can be an agent of change through my interaction with others and by sharing my recovery journey. I hope to inspire and motivate others who are still struggling in their journey of recovery."

The 44-year-old was diagnosed with the condition in 2001.

He found it hard to envision a future for himself.

"I was doubtful of my recovery due to my limited knowledge of mental illness. People used to be prejudiced against people diagnosed with mental illnesses, but I believe Singapore has progressed.

"Now, more people know that these are treatable conditions and that people with mental health conditions can also lead quality lives," he said.

In 2018, the National Council of Social Service launched Beyond The Label, a campaign to promote greater social inclusion of people recovering from mental health conditions and to correct misconceptions surrounding them.

In January this year, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices also amended its guidelines, advising employers to remove all declarations on mental health conditions from job application forms.

These are all "positive steps" for building a more inclusive society for people with mental health conditions, including schizophrenia, said Dr Tang.

According to SAMH, 700 people diagnosed with schizophrenia have gone to the association to seek help through various programmes today. This number was about 300 three years ago.

Ms Poh Lay Ping, 48, who receives support from the SAMH Mobile Support Team in dealing with schizophrenia, is happy to be able to live independently in a rental flat and work full time as a cashier and server at a food and beverage outlet.

When she was in her 20s, the voices in her head convinced her that all human beings were demons. She thought she could read people's minds whenever she stepped out of the house.

"I complied with my treatment and I have never doubted (that I could recover)," said Ms Poh, who was diagnosed with the condition at the age of 34.

Despite some of the positive developments in Singapore surrounding mental health, efforts certainly cannot stop now, said all the people who were interviewed.

Ms Poh said: "My hairdresser told me her hair products can cure mental health conditions. There needs to be more education and outreach to the public. I encourage those who are undergoing treatment to comply with their medication and continue to seek help from their doctor."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2020, with the headline 'She once thought she had superpowers to talk to the TV set'. Subscribe