How Can Social Service Practitioners Look After Their Own Mental Health?

By Chong Jinn Xiung

Children's rights advocates Syed Azmi and Dato' Dr Hartini Zainudin discusss why caring for their own mental health is just as important as caring for others

Tatler Asia
Photo: Getty Images
Cover  Photo: Getty Images

Mental health is related to how we think, feel, act, make choices and relate to others. But while it is important to our proper functioning, we don't often prioritise it.

According to Malaysia's National Health and Morbidity Survey, more than half a million Malaysians were found to be experiencing symptoms of depression in 2019. Yet, only 20 percent of Malaysians with a mental disorder will access professional care. This is primarily due to the social stigma associated with mental illness.

Arguably, individuals who work in fields tackling social injustices such as children's rights experience a high level of work-induced stress over the course of their careers. And this worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic. A 2021 study published in the Asian Social Work and Policy Review found that nearly six in 10 frontline social workers in Singapore were affected by anxiety at the height of the pandemic the previous year.

How can social service practitioners and activists take care of their own mental well-being? We speak to two children's rights advocates—Syed Azmi, co-founder of PuakPayong, a non-profit organisation equipping children under 18 with essential life skills, and Dato' Dr Hartini Zainudin, co-founder of Yayasan Chow Kit, which provides support to at-risk children and youth—to learn about the passion they have for their work and how they look after themselves as they help others. 

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What inspires you to help others?

Dato' Dr Hartini Zainudin (HZ): I've been in this line of work for over 40 years and have come across many parents and community members who ask me to help children in need. I feel obliged to help children because they are among the most vulnerable groups in society, as they aren't all able to [clearly] articulate their feelings and needs. 

Syed Azmi (SA): I started as an advocate for children, often helping their families through various issues like sexual harassment. But as the pandemic wore on, I knew help also needs to be extended to the entire family unit given how entire families were struggling. When people call me for assistance, I understand that it is not easy for them to ask for help from a stranger. It is this reason why I want to give them a chance and listen to their needs. Personally, I can't bear to let someone in need suffer.

What are some of the emotional or mental challenges you face doing what you do?

HZ: I occasionally felt overwhelmed because there is never enough time, money or bandwidth to help everyone. I feel guilt and anger building up in me over time, but I tell myself that I've got to take a step back before they consume me. 

SA: Working as an activist, we sometimes get caught up in other people's needs that we forgo our own mental health. I would sometimes help rape victims and it can be difficult to take in and process their problems without letting them weigh me down. But I remind myself and my team to be aware of our own mental state and take care of it before extending help to people in need.

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What are the ways you manage your mental health?

HZ: When you reach your limit and are constantly feeling demotivated, seek help immediately. If you don’t do something about it, you would be of no use to others and your condition will deteriorate. Sadly, there is a lack of mental health awareness in Asia and seeking treatment is stigmatised. In contrast, when I was living in the US, it was generally accepted that therapy is part of one's personal maintenance. Lately, I've been seeing a therapist to treat my anxiety and panic attacks. This is my way of trying to get better, so I am able to help more people. 

The way I see it, life is a marathon. So it would be best if we listened to what our body and mind tell us. I used to rush for deadlines but as I got older, I adjust my workload to avoid getting burnt out. I also believe in being realistic about my own capabilities, letting go of tasks I can't handle or when I don't want to let go, I ask for help. 

SA: I often speak to my close friends whenever I need to blow off steam. I also often watch movies and documentaries to unwind and keep my mind active and devoid of negative feelings. A good long shower helps too, as I feel that it washes away the problems of the day and makes me feel rejuvenated. And finally, I try to do some reflection every morning to put my mind in a positive place before I start my day.

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