Time to Care

The last nationwide study by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) showed that 1 in 7 people in Singapore has experienced a mental health disorder in their lifetime[1] Based on these numbers, you may already be caring for someone with a mental health issue – a family member, a friend, or even a co-worker. And if you aren’t, the possibility of being called on at some point to be a caregiver to someone with a mental health issue is very real.

Former First Lady of the United States (US), Rosalynn Carter once said, “There are four kinds of people in the world: those who are currently caregivers, those who have been caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.”

Consider firstly, Singapore’s ageing population which increases the incidence of age-related disorders such as dementia. Mental health disorders are also becoming more commonplace with the stress and uncertainty that thelong-drawn pandemic has brought on.

Combine these facts and it is not hard to imagine that every one of us will be a caregiver to someone with a mental health condition at some point in our lives.

The 2016 IMH study showed that one in seven people in Singapore had experienced a mental disorder such as bipolar disorder or alcohol abuse in their lifetime – an increase from roughly one in eight several years ago.

With the pandemic upending our schedules and routines, there have been reports in the media about increased incidents of domestic abuse, workplace burnout, family issues, and suicide as prolonged periods of isolation, financial worries and uncertainty about the future take their toll.

In a joint local study by the IMH and the University of Hong Kong conducted between May 2020 and June this year, approximately 13 percent of over 1,000 participants reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression.

Suicide prevention agency Samaritans of Singapore reported an increase of more than 22 percent in the number of calls attended to on their 24-hour hotline in March 2020 as compared to the same period in 2019[2].

Zalifah Ibrahim was in her early twenties when a family member attempted to take his own life. As far as she could see, there had been no warning signs. Zalifah recalls, “As we had very little understanding about mental health, we dismissed it as a one-off thing. The topic seemed taboo, so we didn’t address it. When he quit one job after another, I thought he was just being lazy.”

It was only after the family member had a second massive breakdown that Zalifah had to rethink her attitude towards her loved one – and mental health, in general.

She signed up for Caregivers Alliance’s Caregivers-to-Caregivers (C2C) programme. What she had learned about mental health helped her understand her loved one as well as benefited her social circle.

“Being more aware of the symptoms of mental health issues opened my eyes, and I started to recognise them in my friends who are struggling with depression,” she said. “I was therefore able to use my newfound knowledge to help them as well.”

In the same way that we do not wait for an emergency to happen before attending a first aid course, preparing ourselves to be a caregiver is something all of us can do.

Mental health issues can be tricky to identify. It is often not until a crisis occurs that treatment is sought, and even then, many fail to seek treatment due to the social stigma surrounding them. Lack of information or lack of access to mental health services can also hinder treatment.

By improving literacy around mental health issues and treatment, we are better able to recognise the early signs in those around us, and encourage them to seek treatment quickly, which can greatly improve their chances of recovery.

Caregivers often find themselves plunged into a whirlwind of struggles in taking care of a loved one with a mental health condition, from keeping up with day-to-day responsibilities, navigating schedules, to medication and doctor appointments.

During the Circuit Breaker period last year, Caregivers Alliance Limited (CAL) received many calls on the hotlines from people who were at their wits’ end. One call came from a distraught mother whose daughter had tried to take her own life two days before. Another from a man alone at home with his wife, diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, who was getting aggressive from being cooped up.

Caregivers can be very vulnerable to burnout and depression. Being prepared means we are equipped with the necessary tools and knowledge when the situation calls for it.

When Alvyna Han was diagnosed with depression in August 2015 after a traumatic event, she spiralled into a pattern of self-destructive and self- harming behaviour, which continued for almost two years. In 2017, on her best friend’s recommendation, she signed up for a course at CAL as a caregiver to herself.

“Instead of relying on others, I decided that I should, firstly, take care of myself,” she said. Inspired by a documentary and what she had learnt, she signed up as a volunteer in the hope that her experience could help others. Alvyna is now a full-time programme manager with CAL.

Caring about our mental health should be no different from caring about our physical health. When we are ill or if something hurts, we visit a doctor. Mental health should be treated the same way.

Self-care goes beyond pampering massages and soaking in the bath. It means taking the time to ensure we live well and improve our physical, mental and emotional health.

In these challenging and uncertain times, we don’t need to act like everything is okay, because it isn’t. There are many resources available. Whether you are already a caregiver, or know of someone who is struggling, do extend a hand and remind them that there is no shame in reaching out for help. ⬛

1 Institute of Mental Health. Media Release – Latest nationwide study shows 1 in 7 people in Singapore has experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime. 2018, December 11. Retrieved from: https://www.imh.com.sg/uploadedFiles/Newsroom/News_Releases/SMHS%202016_Media%20Release_FINAL_web%20upload.pdf
2 Tan, R. Mental-wellbeing amidst Covid-19. Samaritans of Singapore. 2020, May. Retrieved from: https://www.sos.org.sg/blog/mental-wellbeing-amidst-covid-19


Ms Tricia Lee is Head of Communications at Caregivers Alliance Limited (CAL). CAL is a non-profit organisation dedicated to meeting the needs of caregivers and people with mental health issues. The fully-funded training programmes equip caregivers with a better understanding of mental health issues, such as depression, bipolar disorder, dementia and eating disorders. To find out more, visit cal.org.sg.

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