How Can We Normalise Mental Health Discussions?
Having lost friends to suicide and gone through her own struggles with bipolar disorder, Sabrina Ooi started the Calm Collective to encourage more people to talk about mental health issues. Here, she shares how we can break the taboo
Sabrina Ooi will never forget the period when she battled depression. “I experienced depressive episodes several times from 11 years old to my early twenties,” shares the Singaporean entrepreneur, who started mental health platform Calm Collective Asia. “I hit my lowest low in 2016 after being triggered by several stressful events like financial difficulties, loneliness and the death anniversary of a close friend.”
Unable to find the mental health support she needed, she began to feel isolated and even considered suicide. “Devoid of hope and support, I went to the 20th floor of a nearby building, hung my legs off the ledge and contemplated death,” Ooi recalls. “While I sat, a passerby called the police and they came by. At that time, attempted suicide was still considered an offence in Singapore, so off to jail I went… but that’s a story for another time.”
The incident alarmed her parents, who helped her to find the support she needed. For the three years after, she focused on getting better through regular therapy sessions and daily medication. She also made sure to have a regular sleep schedule and practised meditation and yoga.
With time, Ooi's condition improved and in 2019, she recalls “finally being able to hold down a regular job in the software industry, while dabbling in DJing on the side and taking care of my own personal needs—rent, insurance, food”. She also came to a realisation that she wanted to help others by sharing her own knowledge and experiences with mental illness, in order to destigmatise the matter in Singapore.
Partnering up with two of her friends, Alyssa Reinos and Luqman Mohamed, she started Calm Collective, a social enterprise that aims to normalise mental health conversations in Asia through relatable and accessible talks and events online. The platform works closely with a diverse range of people to create its content, from mental health professionals and individuals like Ooi with lived experience of mental health conditions, to influential leaders and personalities from industries such as media and entertainment who believe in the cause.
Ooi shares more about her journey running the social enterprise and how we can normalise talking about mental health here.
What is the story behind the founding of Calm Collective?
The seed was planted in 2019 around the time I released an article about my mental health experiences titled How I Went from Leaving to Living. I saw that sharing personal stories and having open conversations are the most effective ways to destigmatise mental health. They can help to give people the confidence to seek help, before it’s too late.
By the time Calm Collective was set up, my co-founder Alyssa Reinos and I had already lost two loved ones to suicide. In our catch-ups, we would both talk about how Asia needed more mental health content that reflected the Asian perspective, as mental health issues are traditionally seen as “a Western thing” in this part of the world.
The Covid-19 circuit breaker in Singapore opened up the opportunity for us to start Calm Collective. I was personally upset that mental health services were considered [by the government] as non-essential, which meant that I technically couldn't see my therapist or psychiatrist. This got me thinking about all the people who needed the help, especially given the stressful times. That's when we decided to launch our first series of virtual events focused on coping strategies for mental health—and Calm Collective was born.
What is perpetuating the stigma around mental health?
The stigma exists due to the lack of education and understanding of the subject. Without the knowledge that mental health is simply a part of one’s overall health, we don’t have the understanding or vocabulary to talk about it with compassion. Oftentimes, people with mental health conditions are written off as crazy or dangerous, when in fact the majority of mental health conditions can be managed with therapy, medication and lifestyle changes.
Many of the conversations around mental health today approaches the matter from a top-down perspective, with the objective of “fixing” the situation such as reducing suicide rates or burnout. I find that it’s rarely talked about in a way that is compassionate toward the individual’s lived experiences; rarely is the human put first. So at Calm Collective, we ensure that the human experience is at the centre of our content.
Also, despite the increase in mental health conversations, some perpetuate certain misconceptions about what mental health really is. Many corporates and individuals I’ve spoken with continue to declare that “mental health is not for me, I’m not struggling”. But this isn't true at all: Mental health is a part of our health. It exists on a continuum and every individual should strive to have good mental health. They should be proactive in managing their own mental health, just like how they'd take care of their body by regularly going for a health check up.
How can we all start talking about our mental health more?
Start with yourself—practise curiosity and non-judgment in your everyday conversations with others, and support each other with greater empathy. Also, embrace mental health as an essential part of our overall health. By understanding that the brain is an organ that can fall sick, you will be more open to seeking help.