Making mental health knowledge accessible (Part II)

A conversation with Athel Hu, Founder, Mentidote.

Photo courtesy of Athel Hu.

In the earlier instalment of this two-part interview, Athel Hu, founder of mental health social enterprise Mentidote explained her motivations behind founding the start-up, and some of the key learning points in her ongoing experience of running the business. The conversation continues with her perspectives of how people can be more open about discussions on mental health and technology’s role in managing mental health issues.

Q: In Singapore today, discussions on mental health and seeking help for mental health related issues can still be a somewhat sensitive or taboo topic. What do you think are some ways that can drive people to more be open about such discussions?

A: I would say that the COVID-19 pandemic has opened up a space where stigma has been reduced greatly due to shared experiences of the struggles and distress that many of us have to face over the past one year. Particularly last year, there were many mental health and wellness initiatives that were started. It helps also that influential figures have also opened up on their own struggles.

Such sharing lends strength to individuals who are suffering in silence, to know that there are people who have gone before them and have made it through and that they are not alone, because the idea of “I’m alone in this” or “I’m the only one who is different” can be very crippling and scary. This creates some sort of self-stigmatisation, where one judges oneself largely due to certain beliefs about mental health that has been passed on to us as we were growing up. This is one of key routes as to how stigma is perpetuated. If stigma is learnt, it can therefore be unlearnt.

The way to challenge and unlearn it would indeed be to firstly, selectively share with a few persons whom one can trust. He/she might be surprised that their loved ones are more supportive and non-judgmental than one would expect. Keeping their mental health under wraps might create even more distress. I’ve also come to realise that individuals appreciate the small group sharing and Q&A sessions segments in the mental health education workshops that I run.

It works like a focus group, that when one individual starts to share openly about their experiences, the rest follows suit and it creates a space for people to learn and talk about mental health related topics freely, with the assistance of a facilitator. This is the reason why mental health interventions in the form of educational workshops helps to reduce stigma and encourages individuals to learn with lesser fear of being judged and stigmatised.

With the introduction of mental health education in our school system, I believe it’s a matter of time that conversations around mental health will be normalised rather than stigmatised.

With the middle adult population, somehow stigma is a lot more entrenched. For this group, the idea of peer support might be more suitable as it leverages on a fellow peer’s personal experiences with mental health issues and help-seeking. It creates some form of solidarity. I would say this would be one of the most powerful ways in stimulating not only a discussion but also a great form of encouragement for their peers to talk about and seek help for mental health concerns.

Q: Mentidote’s vision is to create “a more loving world where everyone knows how to “Mentidote”; knowing how to love and care for one’s own mental well-being and that of others.” How do you see yourself fulfilling this vision in the long-term?

A: I think running Mentidote has been one of the toughest things I have ever done in life. But even though this past one year has been tough, I’m at this juncture where this vision remains strong in me. I guess that says a lot. Ideally, I certainly hope to have my bread and butter provided for — Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is very real and I’ve learnt that in this past year (haha!).

Our basic needs really need to be met before we can reach our full potential (self-actualised). If anything I have learnt in life, I shall not look too far because I am honestly not sure how far I can go with Mentidote. But one thing I am sure, that is my passion for mental health advocacy work remains, be it directly via Mentidote, or in another form where I get to continue to do mental health related work.

Q: Mental health or self-awareness apps and tools are becoming more popular in recent times, and these can be useful especially when people feel more mentally stressed during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. How do you view technology’s role in helping people manage mental health issues?

A: It depends on what version of mental health app are we talking about. So far I find the kind of apps that involves more Counselling types of work more effective, such as live chat for Counselling. Blog posts on apps might also help to raise mental health literacy and awareness.

Otherwise, mental health related work I would say, is one of those few areas where a human touch is necessary and needed for it to be effective. Hence, I think whoever is able to replicate that human touch in an app to empathise and validate the emotions of individuals will be the most successful.

Thank you for taking time to read this interview, hope you enjoyed it!
You can read Part I of the interview
here.

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Dean Koh

Dean Koh

Loves Japan, photography and fun puns.

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