We need Empathy to Fight Mental Illness

NMP Anthea Ong asked for better mental health support at her recent Budget 2020 speech. In an ST Opinion piece, Professor Tommy Koh chimed in to ask for more to be done to address  mental health, especially among our youths. But if we want real real change then we also need to ask tough questions even if it make us feel uncomfortable. 

As a private counsellor, one thing I see in common among my clients, which include the mentally ill, is the feeling of unworthiness; the belief that they are not good enough. But why and who is making them feel unworthy? 

We attribute it to stress and even kiasu-ism, but it’s really shame and it’s no laughing matter.

Does Singapore subconsciously perpetuate a culture of shaming?

According to shame expert and research professor TED Talk sensation Professor Brene Brown from the University of Texas, shame is the intense painful experience of believing we are flawed and unworthy of acceptance and belonging.  In a culture of shame, the “shamer” assumes the voice of perfection and authority and dictates what is acceptable and not. The “shamee” is silenced into feeling he is not good enough and doesn’t belong. Such a culture always comprises blame, fear and disconnection and can lead to psychological isolation. 

There was a reason why Best Picture of the Year at the Oscar’s went to “Parasite.” Its theme of social divide and shame in Korea resonated with global audiences, including Singapore.

Can our leaders drop the armour to relook at the impact of our policies through the eyes of empathy?

Does Singapore subconsciously perpetuate a culture of shaming? Is it seen in the cars we drive, the educational certs we have or don’t have, the homes we live, and the jobs we hold and the money accorded to them. Are we judged by our possessions, education and status?  Anti-litter campaigns, public caning and language used by people of authority to correct behaviour are also part of our day to day living. 

According to Brown,  shaming really doesn’t correct behaviour, either. In fact, an 8-year-old study revealed that shaming is a strong predictor of school suspension, drug use and suicide.

The trouble with shaming is that it silences and disconnects. Mental illness is isolating enough but shaming just seals the deal.  Shaming silences and disconnects and implies you have no wish to understand my struggles and actions.

But can we try empathy instead?  Empathy is the ability to tap into our own experience in order to connect with someone relating that experience. Can our leaders drop the armour to relook at the impact of our policies through the eyes of empathy? When applied by people of power, it connects and gives hope to the vulnerable in the knowing that you can truly make a difference. 

Empathy is like intuition. Some people just have less of it but adopting and committing to an attitude of curiosity is a good start