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Small Actions, Big Impact: Tackling the Stigma of Mental Healthcare in Singapore

Valerie at her workstation at Tan Tock Seng Hospital

For Valerie Wang, the smallest actions can make the biggest difference in the lives of her patients. And she has lived by this motto ever since.

Building a Base in Psychology

Since she was a child, Valerie has always been interested in the human mind, and has a knack for listening to others. This encouraged her to pursue a Bachelor of Arts (with Honours) in Psychology at Nanyang Technological University.

During her undergraduate years, she had the opportunity to do her internship with the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) and worked with patients presenting with mood disorders. She co-facilitated group psychotherapy sessions which uses a Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) approach alongside trained clinical psychologists.

Specifically, Valerie worked closely with individuals presenting with depression. She equipped them with adaptive skills to cope with their distressed thoughts and emotions, assisted them in defining meaningful life values, and identified goals for them to work on.

Such an experiential journey exposed Valerie to individuals from all walks of life and solidified her belief that human connections are vital to mental healthcare.

Inspired by her time at IMH, Valerie realised that a career in clinical psychology treating patients with mental health issues was the right fit for her.

Mental Health: Stigma and Misconception

Unlike regular psychologists, clinical psychologists are specialists who treat a variety of mental health-related disorders.

Valerie had to first pursue a Master of Clinical Psychology in order to qualify as a clinical psychologist. She did her Masters programme at the University of Queensland from 2017 to 2019 after successfully applying for, and receiving the prestigious Healthcare Graduate Studies Award.

For increased exposure, Valerie also worked at the Inner North Brisbane Mental Health Service and Royal Brisbane & Women's Hospital as a provisional psychologist. Upon the successful completion of her postgraduate degree, she returned home to Singapore.

Currently, Valerie is a Senior Psychologist at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) where she specialises in caring for matters of the mind. She has treated patients for depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), just to name a few.

Unfortunately, mental health is still a taboo topic amongst many Singaporeans. In fact, some of Valerie's patients have mentioned that they sometimes feel suspicious and even fearful of psychologists.

As a result, some patients or even their caregivers can become combative or highly defensive during sessions. Patients have also been known to shut down entirely and refuse to engage with allied healthcare professionals.

But Valerie takes it all in her stride.

In her own words, "Most of the time, when patients come in, they're scared, uncomfortable, and overwhelmed. It's important to understand that they're reacting to their current circumstances."

"This is where you need to take a personal touch. I encourage my patients to open up during sessions. And I notice that patients find it comforting when they have a safe space to talk."

"Once they start getting used to you, patients are more willing to let you in. I listen to what they say and don't offer any judgements. As their psychologist, it's my goal to help them make a positive change in their lives."

Sometimes, Valerie finds that patients find it difficult to speak to her. Many cling to the misconception that only a person with mental health issues would speak to a psychologist. And this is why she spends a lot of time empathising with patients, educating them on the finer points of mental health, and reassuring them that it is okay to seek professional help.

On the other hand, some patients or relatives assume that clinical psychologists can provide them with an easy fix to all of their problems. When in reality, this couldn't be further from the truth.

But thankfully, this is mainly the exception rather than the norm.

According to Valerie, "Most people calm down when they see that you are allowing them time and a safe space to share their issues. The key here is treating them with respect and patience."

Dealing With the Challenges of Mental Healthcare

Despite its challenges and misconceptions, Valerie thoroughly enjoys her work at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. She constantly looks forward to sessions with patients and watching them get better. As TTSH caters to senior members of the community, this makes for some rather exciting and rewarding moments.

One notable experience Valerie had was with an older patient who expressed doubts about her (Valerie) abilities as a younger person/healthcare professional.

According to her, "When he first entered the room, the first thing he did was look at me and say, "You're about as old as my granddaughter. Are you sure you can help me?"

Undeterred, Valerie reached out to the patient and helped him resolve his issues. Over 6 months and several sessions, he would learn to appreciate and benefit from his sessions with Valerie.

At the end of his treatment, he apologised for his initial dismissive attitude and told her, "Never let anyone tell you what you can or cannot do. Your care helped me get through a tough time. Thank you."

Other equally rewarding interactions include watching patients make breakthroughs as they learn how to free themselves from their negative self-talk, or watching caregivers and patients come to terms with a shocking life-changing event.

Some patients have taken to sharing their hobbies with her. In one instance, a stroke survivor found a passion for gardening and brought samples of his favourite plants to show Valerie during their sessions.

And for her, this is what makes it all worthwhile. 

"To me, the biggest professional reward is making a positive change in the lives of my patients and the entire process of witnessing people get better," shared Valerie.

Creating Awareness for Mental Health in Singapore

Besides caring for her patients, Valerie also conducts regular public health talks and writes articles on dealing with workplace stress and practising mindfulness.

She has shared some self-care tips for anyone that may be going through a tough time or feeling burnt out.

An article written by Valerie on how to use breathing techniques to de-stress (image credit: TTSH GPBuzz JAN – MAR 2022)

First of all, take a break. Given today's fast-paced world, many of us fail to step back, relax, and enjoy some meaningful activities. It doesn't have to be anything major because the simplest activities can sometimes give you the most pleasure.

Next, ask yourself what is important to you. The COVID pandemic and circuit breaker measures forced people to re-evaluate their lives, so don't lose sight of that now that things have started to normalise. Focus on what you value and enjoy every moment of it.

The importance of mental healthcare is something that many of us tend to overlook. This is very dangerous as stress is one of the top causes of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

Setting up for the Future

Before ending our interview, we asked Valerie whether she had any advice for anyone looking to pursue a career in psychology or healthcare. And she had this to say:

"The one thing you need to know is that there are many different fields of psychology. So, it's important that you know which field interests you."

"As a clinical psychologist, you have to enjoy interacting with people, and listen to what they have to say. It's also crucial that you know how to stay objective and respect the individual's privacy as you must listen to many extremely personal stories".

She adds, "You should also never rush into things but instead, take the time to do your research and learn more about what you're getting into. Apply for internships, get as much practical experience as possible, and learn what working with patients looks like."

"It's going to be difficult, and you need to be comfortable working under pressure for extended periods. But if you enjoy working with people and want to make a difference in their lives, then you're going to feel a strong sense of accomplishment, and that's your reward."

Are you looking to pursue postgraduate studies at a local or international university? If you are, then you may want to consider taking a look at our Healthcare Graduate Studies Award.

MOH Holdings (MOHH) is currently offering scholarships to nurture the next generation of allied healthcare professionals. These scholarships are in partnership with public healthcare institutions and give you the opportunity to study in both local and overseas universities. For more details, check out our website here.