People can battle depression and lead successful and impactful lives, just like Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill. It is not all ‘doom and gloom’ for those with mental illness.
This was highlighted by counselling psychologist Wong Siew Lee during her online public talk on “Getting to Know Depression: Helping yourself & those you care for” on 19 March 2022. Over 130 people attended the event organised by the School of Education, Humanities and Social Sciences (SEHS).
She said many sufferers hide their condition and so fail to receive timely support and treatment because of the associated social stigma and shame. Depression, she clarified, is caused by external pressures from life or the environment, such as loss of a loved one, losing a job, divorce, or exposure to traumatic events (e.g. car crash, robbery), and internal factors like biochemical imbalance in the brain and genetics (e.g. family history of mental illness).
She said many of her clients include professionals like doctors, lawyers, teachers and managers. She discouraged self-diagnosis since depression involves multiple symptoms that continue for more than 2 weeks.
She said people do not realise that depression is a “very treatable illness that can be managed”. The first, essential treatment is lifestyle changes, followed by psychological therapy or counselling. “Talking to qualified professionals can help change their negative thinking pattern and improve their coping skill so they are better equipped to deal with life stresses or conflicts,” she explained. Lastly is medication prescribed by psychiatrists, such as anti-depressants, but she pointed out that it takes at least 3-4 weeks before you notice a change in mood.
Wong said that in supporting a depressed individual, being a compassionate listener is more important than giving advice. “We become their outlet, helping them contain their fear, negative thoughts. Encourage them to talk about their feelings, and listen without judgement or criticism. Keep expressing care, no matter how many times they push you away,” she urged.
She suggested bringing up your concerns with the person if you think she is having suicidal thoughts and helping her seek professional support immediately. “As people talk about it, you are helping them to process their fears. Remember suicidal thoughts are only temporary, but take any suicidal tendencies seriously and respond immediately.”
She said that depressive illnesses can distort our thinking to cause thoughts of hopelessness and helplessness, which may lead to suicidal tendencies. “So let them know you care and that the way they feel now will change. Help them to hang on a bit longer.”
She said that when someone is depressed, suicide is a real danger, and it is important to recognise the warning signs of suicidal intent. “They talk about suicide, dying or harming oneself, have a preoccupation with death, express feelings of hopelessness or self-hate, and act in dangerous or self-destructive ways, such as drink excessively or drive recklessly. They get their affairs in order and say goodbye, and seek out pills, weapons or other lethal objects,” she elaborated.
Wong strongly cautioned never to leave a person at immediate risk of suicide alone, but to inform the next of kin, provide support and company, remove dangerous objects, and encourage them to get extra help (e.g. Befrienders).
He reiterated that the portfolio must be backed by evidence, and so suggested for working adults to keep certificates, testimonials from employers, emails, appointment letters, job description, awards and photographs to testify to their work experience and learning.
During Q & A, Prakash said that APEL (C) can only apply to courses in the applicant’s enrolled programme. He clarified the differences are that APEL (A) provides eligibility to enter a programme while APEL (C) offers exemption from specific courses.
She gave 8 self-help tips that can calm and relax us, and also help recover from depression. They are getting a pet, regular physical exercise, getting enough sunlight and fresh air, exploring our creativity (e.g. cooking, gardening), keeping friends and family in your life, making time for mindful relaxation (e.g. breathing exercise), becoming involved in the local community, and enhancing our emotional intelligence (e.g. write a mood journal to vent negative emotions).
To the question on how to handle a caller standing on the balcony and contemplating suicide, she suggested keeping the person engaged and talking, and to distract her from suicidal thoughts by asking her to do something.