Social work

In Personal reflections, singapore general election parliament, Singapore Politics, Uncategorized on November 16, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Some things need to be said about mental illness.

Generally, it’s easy to raise awareness about animal abuse and melt people’s hearts with posters of bunny rabbits and cute puppies. It’s never too difficult to elicit an “Awwwwww” or a “Those poor things…!” from the general public.

But when it comes to talking about psychiatric patients………………..you’re probably not going to get the same emotional response. Till this day, too much stigma surrounds the notion of mental illness and rehabilitation.

Before my week-long work attachment at an undisclosed religious mental rehabilitation organisation, I had no clue what psychiatric patients would be like. And at the rehab centre, they were surprisingly normal. It was genuinely difficult to tell the difference between the staff members and the clients–not because the staff were mental, but because there seemed to be nothing remotely wrong with the “patients”. Certainly, those were the clients who’d already been treated and were rehabilitating well, but what I saw did offer some glimpse of hope: Mental illnesses like schizophrenia do not spell the end of all sanity and healthy living.

I met a 53-year-old man named Will. He grasped my hand and said “Hi, I’m Will, the Investigator. I want to keep this country safe, nab criminals. So that Singapore can attract foreign investment.”

He seemed perfectly sane, healthy, rational. I later learnt he was schizophrenic, a condition in which the subject sometimes cannot tell the difference between what is real and what isn’t.

A day later, when I went back to work, he looked at me with an unnerving seriousness. “Aren’t your parents scared of this place? Aren’t your teachers scared of assigning you to a….a mental hospital? You’re not afraid?”

“No, I’m not. We’re just playing Scrabble, it’s not like anyone is going to hurt me. Everyone is really, really friendly.”

“But some of us aren’t…..you know….stable………DO I SCARE YOU?” He kept staring at me, even when I looked away. The truth was, Will didn’t scare me, because he was too normal to frighten anyone.

On a separate note, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many social workers, who handle cases like Will’s and everyone else’s in the rehab centre. I can honestly say that none of these social workers are working in self-interest. It is not a job that typically pays a lot, and like all other noble professions such as nursing, there are certain hells they have to endure on the job. Paperwork is one of them.

I’ve met a businessman who gave up his lucrative construction company to join this mental rehab centre as a programme planner. I’ve met a social worker who had to endure the guilt and grief of his psychiatric clients committing suicide. And I’ve met occupational therapists with amazing patience needed to teach and train disruptive clients.

For these clients, being hit with mental illnesses is like having to start from Square One all over again. Some of them were high-achieving doctors and lawyers who simply couldn’t cope with the stress of their profession and developed mental illnesses that caused them to lose basic living skills like bathing, brushing your teeth and changing your clothes. It’s like being forced to start from scratch. What makes it easier are these social workers who want nothing more than to help them slowly rehabilitate.

All of these social workers are there with an altruistic purpose of serving clients, and because of the religious nature of the organisation, the staff find motivation in their religious goal of helping others. In a secular society like Singapore, we cannot undermine the value of such religious organisations that don’t strive to preach or proselytize, but to give back to the community as best as they can.

In such a fast-paced and competitive country, we talk about achieving “happiness, prosperity and progress”. At the same time, we talk about being “One People, One Nation, One Singapore”. Perhaps it’s time we realised that the two are a tad mutually exclusive. The reality is that with such high-speed progress, a lot of us end up being left behind–whether it’s the mentally disabled, physically disabled, or regular folks who just can’t cope. It is these religious organisations that inspire people with an altruistic incentive to help them.

Unlike corporations,  these organisations aren’t doing this for Corporate-Social Responsibility and public relations. And unlike governments, they aren’t giving “handouts” to win an election.

I feel undoubtedly cleansed after being around these people, and have begun to feel a sense of disgust for the self-serving grandeur politicians build around themselves. Looking at such exhausting, selfless work, one wonders if high salaries belong to the realm of Ministers or to the realm of such people who make true “sacrifices”.

While I fully agree that we need to pay these social workers well, perhaps increasing their pay would create another “ministerial” culture, where we attract the wrong people for the job–those who are concerned with profit, not people. The world of social work seems to be built on altruism–and high pay simply doesn’t fit into that world.

As a society, we need to start talking about uncomfortable things like mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. We need to talk about how much or how little we know about it, we need to say the wrong things so we can learn the right things. Misconceptions must be cleared up, and we must rid ourselves of the unnecessary fear of mental illnesses. No matter how hard these patients try to recover from their illnesses, it is society that must first rehabilitate from its phobias and prejudices. Only then can we hope to achieve true re-integration.


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