The team at the Singapore Mental Health Film Festival (SMHFF) invited SOS to be on the first episode of their #MyMentalCare podcast series.
Charlene, Head of Core Services at SOS, sat down with the Executive Director of SMHFF, Cheryl, to share about the impact of the pandemic on her mental health, and what she has learnt through this journey. This series is produced by SMHFF and you can listen to the podcast on Spotify here.
Cheryl Tan (CT): Well, thank you for sharing. So how has a pandemic affected SOS as an organization?
Charlene Heng (CH): So during (the) Circuit Breaker (from) April to May, we actually saw 20 to 30% increase in calls. (Thereafter in) Phase One onwards (we observed) about 10 to 15% (increase) compared to the same time last year (2019).
CT: So you didn't mention it, there has been a surge in a number of calls ... What's the most challenging experience during this entire period for SOS? Have you all been able to cope with the increase?
CH: This is a very good question. What was most memorable for me was, we are classified by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) as(an) essential service. (This means that) during (the) Circuit Breaker, our service must run, (that) means we cannot shut down because it's a 24/7 hotline. All the more, at times of (the) pandemic and crisis when anxiety heightens, when depression sets in, people need a listening ear. So we are resolved to keep this line running.
CH: We (expected) volunteers to drop out of serving and (that) they (needed) a break during (the) Circuit Breaker. Yet during (this time), we have more calls. So how do we manage this? Well, it was a very challenging time. But our volunteers surprised us. During this period, our volunteers actually say that they will not stop coming (into the office to man the hotline). And not only (did) we managed to manage the calls, we actually pick up more calls than usual, (as compared to) the same time last year. That was something that really surprised and encouraged us.
CT: That's really, really heart-warming to hear. And you know, it really ties into how the community really wants to support each other during this really tough period. With that surge of calls, and really hearing all these new stories of anxiety and depression coming through, how has that perhaps affected your own mental wellbeing?
CH: So last year, we rolled out a new text messaging service, and the response was overwhelming! Our lean team of people, we need to meet current demands, and we need to meet the demands from the new service. We all were pretty stretched, work very long hours. And I ever remember myself breaking down in front of the computer.
And there was a very memorable meltdown because my husband didn't know what to do with me. He was (in) shock and went "oh." and I just cried my lungs out. I almost called my own hotline for help. But what was really memorable of the staff team was that we actually gave an option to the staff that if any one of (them) felt(that) because of safety, (they) do not want to expose (themselves to the potential virus) by visitations, there is no question asked by the organization, (but to just sound out). None of the staff backed out. That was a very touching moment that tells me (the) staff (team) actually live by the mission, which is to be an available lifeline (even) when there's potential risk and sacrifice. It's the good that came out of the pandemic.
CT: It's so encouraging to be able to work in a team (where) everyone is supporting each other in this work. And I'm sorry to hear about your meltdown ... maybe you can share about how did you cope with your meltdown? What measures did you take?
CH: I actually have denied it for a period. (For) example, I had a meltdown at night, and the next day, I still carried on to work and worked long hours. I don't have very good sleep, because usually in the middle of the night, I receive calls for work purposes (as well). But you know, human has this power of if you know, you need to go on, you will. Until there was a point when I realized I needed help. And the denial comes when (I thought to myself) I am a professional myself, and should I or who can I seek for help? Eventually I sought help. I saw a counselor who helped me. I (then) realized that as someone who is in this line(of work), I must embrace help-seeking myself.
CT: The denial is so real. You being in (the) social sector, and being a professional, me myself as well, this whole denial part … how do we exactly go and seek for help? How do we actually get past that?
CH: You asked a very good question. I was about to unpack this whole thing about denial, because in the first place, where did that denial come from? I didn't even realize (that) I will be in denial. Because (by) seeking help, does that mean that in the first place, I don't know how to self-care? We are encouraging others to self-care and seek help, and I myself is in this state. I wondered.. who am I then to advocate for the whole idea of self-care (and) help-seeking?
CT: I think that's a very real problem for a lot of people. This whole denial part is (also faced by) professionals. When we were talking about unpacking, I do have a therapist as well. And I have a weekly date with my therapist, and I think I'm really privileged to be able to do that unpacking every week, which I feel is really essential. Especially for those weeks, I feel like, oh, there's nothing really going on. But the unpacking part just lets you (question if) there’s really nothing going on? It's so interesting that we can really start to dig in deeper into why are you even happy this week.
CH: One thing I've learned about being in the helping profession, is that we cannot operate out of empty. Sometimes the function of self-care does help us recharge and fill. I especially like what you say about meeting your therapist, and the function of it. So not meeting therapist per se, but the purpose of meeting a therapist - you do regular unpacking, you do regular revisit to the core, asking yourself who you are and (about) your purposes. And (asking if what you’re currently) doing meeting these needs. Otherwise, self-care may become just a distraction, and never addressing what weights us down.
CT: Maybe you want to talk a bit about your self-care methods and how have you and your family taken care of yourselves?
CH: My husband happens to be working during that peak of the pandemic. He was also working in a Community Care Facility (CCF). That took atoll as well. So when his work took a toll (on him), my work took a toll (as well). When we come home, we just want our own space. Being under the same roof may not necessarily mean there's more interaction because we (often) take it for granted.
For instance, and there was a period of time other than him going down to the CCF, when we both work from home, we worked from the same room, in the same space. We literally see each other 24/7, yet we felt (that we) are drifting apart. So being under the same roof, seeing each other everyday doesn't mean you'll know each other is (doing) okay.
And I thought he still sleeps (well) and wakes up for work (feeling) okay. I didn't know there's so much going on inside him, he probably didn't realize there’s so much going on inside me until (my) meltdown. We used to talk a lot more and we used to have much more time for each other. We are hopeful, we hope that this year will be something different. Maybe we have todo some catch up and restore some of the lost time that we had.
CT: Have you gotten into any practices that you would do with your husband to rejuvenate conversations?
CH: First and foremost, don't take for granted that (when) you work at home together and see each other (often) means (that the other party) is fine. A person (may) look fine but a lot happens inside. So always check in (with them). Maybe carve out some sacred time for meals together or a walk together. away from work.
We did a staycation together and he actually asked me to come up with a bucket list. I was taken aback and he responded “No, no! It’s a couple’s bucket list!”. We are in the process of coming up with that list and it’s something to look forward to.
CT: Well that's good to know, and I guess it's really hard to juggle family life and your work is so demanding as well. What continues to inspire you as an individual to continue doing this work that you do?
CH: I joined the organization because one of my family member ever attempted suicide. And so (the topic) about suicide, self harm, was familiar to me. So that is a personal mission. In terms of the direction where the organization is heading (towards), I resonate deeply – (for us) to be an available, lifeline. I will imagine back then, in my own family, if not for those support and lifelines, I (would be) quite close to losing that family member. So today, I'd like to be part of that advocacy, prevention, intervention, and postvention work.
CT: And it's just so important that all of us know that we do have support out there in the darkest of times. Sometimes it doesn't come in a form of a family member or friend, it can be a hotline, and someone's always there to listen to you, isn't it?
CH: When I was 10 years old, when that suicide attempt happened, that was the first time in my life (that) I experienced an external system, and external support came in just at the right time. And (it) help us before we can restore back that calibre or the ability to help ourselves. So don't be afraid to reach out. There's one line I always say like a broken record that:
Asking for help is not giving up. Asking for help is refusing to give up.
I was reading a book by Charlie Mackesy.. one page talks about this boy asking the horse “When have you been at your strongest?" And the horse replied, "It was when I was willing to reveal my weaknesses.”
CT: I guess it goes back to unpacking. When we can really go down to the root cause of our weaknesses, our failures, or any of those down moments, we can emerge from it so much stronger, and in a way that is not pushing away anything to term it as negative or positive. It really just is.
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