Talking to my school counsellor in Singapore
We don’t talk about mental health enough in Singapore. In schools where issues like depression and anxiety are prevalent, there’s still a reluctance to acknowledge it. It’s okay as long as you say “I’m joking” at the end, but things get iffy if it’s not within the context of a self-deprecating meme.
I’ve had my fair share of mental health issues during my time in Junior College, dealing with external pressures, internal conflicts and stigma. But one of the pivotal moments that sparked my road to recovery was when I sought help from the school counsellor.
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The stressors of school
Image credit: Billy Tran
I’m sure a lot of my peers can agree that JC isn’t exactly a smooth-sailing ride. I always saw myself as a cheerful, outgoing person who could take on the world. But a few months in and I became the complete opposite, wanting to curl up in bed and hide away from everything for as long as I could.
A barrage of stress from my academic performance, CCAs and social life all contributed to my deteriorating mental health. Studies-wise, I self-imposed too much pressure to excel, possibly due to the competitive environment I grew up in.
As for my social life, I struggled to find a place to fit in at school and CCA. I wasn’t a part of any “clique” in class or WhatsApp chat group with friends, nor did I have any group outings to look forward to on weekends. The more lonely I felt, the moodier I got. Understandably, my gloominess didn’t make me the best person to be around, which only made me feel more isolated from my peers. Essentially, I was trapped in this vicious cycle, like a melancholic black hole.
My coping mechanism was admittedly not the best either. Instead of taking a step back, I buried myself under more and more work as a distraction. This culminated in countless sleepless nights which got me more on edge with the people around me. Being tired 24/7, there was a miserable, sinking feeling whenever I walked through the school gates.
The stigma formed about mental health issues
It’s still hard to tell whether school is supposed to help make things better, or whether it contributes to making things worse.
We’d occasionally have lessons on mental wellbeing that talked about potential stress factors, signs of depression and how to get help. When the slides had checklists where I fulfilled all criteria, it struck a chilling chord and felt way too real. But unfortunately, the harsh reality is that you’d mostly see students on their phones or doing the next class’ homework during these lessons.
During a particularly rough patch, I posted sad and despondent stories on my private Instagram account lamenting my feelings of isolation and anxiety. Then, I learnt that someone whom I trusted on that account shared that information with other people, and they were mocking and chastising me for being “emo”.
Image for illustration purposes only
It’s unfair to all the people who sent me messages of encouragement, but that one negative comment overshadowed everything else. I felt ashamed to talk to friends about my problems because I didn’t want to feel like a burden. And after receiving remarks that my negativity was dragging others down, I distanced myself from others – way before social distancing became the norm. Who knew I had fortune telling capabilities.
Because I was living alone, I called my parents to tell them about my daily struggles and that I suspected I had depression. They told me I was just feeling stressed and it was normal, all in my head and that eventually, it’d go away. It took weeks of determination to finally admit my unhappiness to them, yet was brushed off in mere seconds.
Image credit: Eunice Kwan
For the remainder of that year, it didn’t go away. I spent the December holidays with these thoughts gnawing at my mind, never daring to call myself “depressed” because I wasn’t clinically diagnosed. I juggled between blaming and justifying myself for my situation then, conflicted as to whether I was really a “bad person” and “attention seeker”.
I started to dread the new school year and seeing everyone who only knew me as the “emo boy”. I knew I had to come back to finish JC and graduate, but didn’t want a repeat of last year. So I decided to take matters into my own hands – I was going to see the school counsellor.
Going to see the school counsellor
I didn’t have the means to consult a therapist, nor much knowledge of any other alternatives at that time. Meanwhile, the school counsellor was free and – seeing as how I was in school almost every day – accessible as well. So after mustering up the courage, I dug through my phone for her contact and booked an appointment via WhatsApp.
Image for illustration purposes only
Image credit: The Smart Local
She gave me a form to fill up and after I was done, asked me why I came to see her. I proceeded to tell her everything, from my feelings of loneliness to difficulty sleeping at night. And to be brutally honest, I don’t even remember the specifics of our discussion. But what I do know is that regardless of what we talked about, the fact that I was finally able to talk to a neutral avenue that wasn’t my family or friends about my problems felt utterly relieving.
I remember asking her “Does seeing a counsellor make you weak?”, to which she replied, “No, of course not.” It was a simple question and answer, but made me feel exponentially more comfortable walking around in school. No one should fault or mock you for being sad, not when you’re actively seeking help.
I’ve had friends doubt the effectiveness of school counsellors, saying that they sometimes feel dismissed and patronised during a session. That’s totally valid, after all, experiences can vary greatly from counsellor to counsellor and person to person.
However, I’d argue that sometimes, it’s not just about what goes on during the talk, but rather the act of seeking help that really matters. Just by walking through that office door, it’s a signal to yourself that you’re brave enough to use any possible resources available to make life better for yourself.
Plus, all it takes is one session to test the waters. You can arrange a follow-up if you’re comfortable, or continue your recovery journey elsewhere as I did. I left my first and only session with a little more confidence in myself, with that “take on the world” feeling slowly coming back.
The road to recovery
Feeling inspired after taking that first step, I continued to find more help for myself by reading online self-help articles and channeling my thoughts into journaling and poetry. Wanting to turn vulnerability into empowerment, I also confided in a select handful of people and even contacted outreach programs like the Community Health Assessment Team. Slowly but surely, I was able to think clearer and discern between the positive thoughts and irrationally sad ones.
Image credit: Eunice Kwan
Today, I’m able to manage my depressive symptoms and anxiety better. As I was working through my old photos, notes and messages in order to write this article, I realised just how far I’ve come since that dark period of my life. It definitely took time but, even as I didn’t know it was happening, things did get better.
Better mental well-being in school
Students often have the misconception that you need to have suffered through trauma or be clinically diagnosed to receive counselling. What they don’t realise is that there is a spectrum for mental health issues like depression. You can experience depressive symptoms at any time, and it’s totally fine to seek help in case it gets worse. Some common symptoms include:
- Helplessness and hopelessness
- Changes in appetite
- Constant fatigue and sleeping problems
- Withdrawal from social life
- Difficulty concentrating
It doesn’t help when offhand phrases like “I’m so depressed because I got a math question wrong” are thrown around too casually and dilute the real calls for help out there. More often than not, it’s only acceptable to talk about depression or anxiety when it’s in the context of a self-deprecating joke. Otherwise, you’re just “attention-seeking”.
Of course, it’s understandably hard to know what to do in situations where someone tells you “I think I have depression”. If that happens, the best thing you can do is be as supportive as you can while also directing them to the proper channels. There’s nothing taboo, strange or weak about discussing mental health – we can afford to be a bit more open with our emotions.
And if you’re struggling with anything, know that you’re not alone.
For more resources on mental health and helplines in Singapore, check out the National Council of Social Services’ mental health resource directory. Alternatively, other free resources include:
- Samaritans of Singapore – 1800-224-4444 (24-hour hotline)
- Singapore Association for Mental Health – 1800-283-7019 (toll-free hotline)
- Community Health Assessment Team – mental health checks for those aged between 16 and 30
Also, check out these other articles on mental health:
- 8 mental health support workshops & platforms
- 8 practical tips to keep your mental health in a good place during virus season
Cover image adapted from (L-R): Billy Tran, TheSmartLocal, The Smart Local