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Reduce stigma by killing shame

As we celebrate World Mental Health Day (10/10), I pause to remember the patients/clients whom I have worked with in the past 17 years. I want to recognize and honour their courage, resilience and grit in continue living even though it is so hard.

I am heartened that there are more open conversations on mental health compared to a decade ago. Earlier this year there was even the inaugural Singapore Mental Health Film Festival. More sufferers are willing to step forward courageously to share their stories to encourage and inspire fellow sufferers. All of these efforts are pointing in the right direction and we should persist.

What makes mental illness so painful is the shame that individuals feel; the fact that they are less than, inadequate, weak and worthless. Society has not arrived at a place where we can talk about it as openly as our physical health. At least, no one is hesitant to get a medical certificate from a general practitioner but one from Institute of Mental Health, no way!

How can we reduce the stigma of mental illness?

I have one suggestion that I like to propose and it is as follows:

we need to start sharing our “failure” or “screwed up” stories.

Every person undergoes challenges in life and experiences deep pain for various reasons. For someone who suffers from mental illness, the natural thought is that “I am alone in this. Everyone but I can deal with life.” He/she looks around and sees “successful” people who seem to have it all and feel demoralised.

We, the supposed “successful” people have in some way perpetuate the stigma of mental illness by keeping silent and not share our pain openly.

Recently, I shared with a client of my struggle with anxiety and she was surprised because outwardly I appear mostly calm and confident. I believe my story gave her hope that if my therapist can overcome and learn to manage her anxiety, so can I.

The challenge that I want to extend to everyone is this: share your struggles, not just your victory.

When something painful is a common experience, there isn’t a need to hide the secret any longer and we can better support one another. Truthfully, all of us has some form of dysfunction; it is only a matter of degree and how well we manage it.

I shall walk the talk and share the times when I felt like a failure.

·     After getting a scholarship to come to study at a top Junior College, I did so poorly for my promo exam that I was put on probation. That was my first taste of failure as I had been an excellent student up until that point. My self-esteem took a hit and I seriously considered quitting school and return to my hometown. I persisted.

·    Being diagnosed with Moya Moya Disease and suffering stroke where I lost the ability to read and write and my right visual field.

·     The first year of my marriage was really tough. It caught me by surprise as we had a wonderful courtship and seemed to get along really well. We went through several challenges, including my brain surgeries and stroke. I was left confused and disillusioned. The upside of it is that I started to learn more about what makes relationship work and I ended up discovering my call and passion.

·     Infertility. As we looked forward to expanding our family, we received bad news after bad news with each visit to different specialists. I seriously felt that perhaps something was wrong with me that I was not good enough to be a mother. After 4 years, we had wanted to give up when our miracle baby came along.

·     The years that I was a trailing wife, I lost my sense of identity and I watched my peers moving ahead in their career and life while I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life at age 32. I couldn’t let go of the narrow definition of success. I was a nobody. It took me 3 years to re-calibrate and find my voice and I started my blog- Winifred & You, Flourishing Together.

The above wasn’t easy to write; it’s not what we usually do and it feels risky and uncomfortable.

That’s the challenge; are we ready to share and reveal the pain that we too keep in our hearts?

To de-stigmatize mental illness, we need to acknowledge and embrace authenticity and vulnerability. As long as we breathe, we hurt. We fall and we rise.

Let’s share our resilient stories so that everyone else will be inspired to do the same. In so doing, we kill shame because it no longer has a hold on us.

Will you join me? #killshame #resilientstory

Warning signs of an ailing relationship

Warning signs of an ailing relationship

A question that I was asked recently is “how do I know when my relationship is ailing, and that intervention is needed”? In other words, what are the warning signs that you should watch out for in order to take actions? Let’s examine the following:

1.    Lack of awareness, interest and knowledge

A strong and healthy relationship is one where both partners care and pay attention to what’s going on in each other’s life. Failing that, you lose the moments when you can connect and the sense that you are cherished is absent. When you are clueless and do not care about the external and internal world of your partner, it is a clear sign that your relationship is ailing.

2.    Feeling lonely in the relationship

There is an increase in feeling unappreciated, invisible and a lack of connection with your partner. You behave more like a housemate (and co-parent), and the conversations that you have are mostly functional. You can’t remember the last time you have a meaningful dialogue, much less feeling cared for. You start thinking the worst of the other and there is a negative sentiment override that signals trust is broken.

3.    Living a parallel life

Parallel lives happen when you no longer do things as a couple. Work may take you on many business trips and even when you’re back home, you and your partner have your own activities. Even though you live in the same house and sleep on the same bed, there is minimal communication and intimacy. This emotional distance and disengagement is a very hard place to be, a clear warning sign.

4.    No physical intimacy and sex

While there are periods of time when healthy couples do not actively engage in sex, it is a problem when one partner feels that the need is not being met. He or she feels frustrated and rejected to the point of resentment. Open communication is missing to express what lies behind the hurt and when this is not forthcoming, the relationship is in trouble.

5.    The waiting games

Unlike earlier days of the relationship where one partner (or both) was proactive in showing affection, expressing gratitude or initiating a date, the attitude now has changed to “why should I do it when he/she doesn’t bother?” The benefit of a doubt that you used to give to your partner is now replaced by suspicion and negative sentiment. The attitude is that of “I don’t want to risk getting hurt or rejected by taking the first move.”

6.    Comparison and keeping scores

As a social being, there is a great tendency to observe what other couples do for each other, compare them to what you and your partner are doing and feeling resentful about it. This behavior is detrimental because you stop seeing the good in your partner and start focusing on what is lacking. Expecting your partner to behave like your friend’s partner isn’t going to compel him/her to behave the same way. In fact, it conveys the message that “you are not good enough” and that’s hurtful.

7.    Stop being kind and respectful, and contempt is present

You might have heard that familiarity breeds contempt. Many at times, the people closest to us get the worst treatment. Instead of making requests, demands and complaints are being made. You stop minding the “please and thank you” and start taking your partner for granted. When your spouse feels that you’re kinder to everyone else but you, something is wrong with the picture. Treat your partner as you would your best friend. Relationship experts have found that the biggest predictor of divorce is contempt.

8.    Forgetting your love story and dreams.

Couples who are deeply in love remember details of their relationship. This is important as it strengthens the commitment they give to each other. These details become fuzzy when you stop giving attention to them. As the memory of your relationship starts to wane, you forget what brought you together and the dreams that you’ve shared. When that memory is gone, it is easier to give up on the relationship because it is no longer meaningful.

Please seek help by (reading up, speaking to trusted friends, seeing a relationship coach or couples therapist) should you have more than half of the warning signs. A relationship is like a plant that needs to be nurtured and it suffers when no attention is given. You reap what you sow.

If there are topics that you’d like me to address, please email me your suggestion at [email protected] See you there.