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Doctors Without Borders in Malaysia senior mental health supervisor Sarah Chou says there's no shame in seeking mental health guidance

Since young, clinical psychologist Sarah Ann Chou displayed a keen interest in the mind and human behaviour. A senior mental health supervisor at Doctors Without Borders in Malaysia, Chou works primarily with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. Through individual and group counselling, and various psychosocial programmes, she and her team work tirelessly to improve the quality of life for these communities.

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In view of how the pandemic has affected the state of our mental health, Chou reflects on the common misconceptions she's heard about mental health throughout her career and shares the steps we can take to safeguard our mental wellness and spread awareness of this oft sidelined issue in our lives.

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Mental health doesn't mean something is wrong with you

"Firstly, we need to understand what mental health is," Chou says. "Mental health isn’t just about seeking counselling; rather, it involves a person’s ability to function, to have relationships, to work and to cope with daily stressors."

In her line of work, Chou has heard many erroneous comments from "only crazy people need counselling" to "psychologists can read your mind". As a society, the first step to addressing these flawed perceptions is to start normalising health seeking behaviours, she says.

"The more we talk about mental health, the more we normalise it and the less stigma is attached to it. Then we can start to improve our help-seeking." 

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Acknowledging vulnerability in a world that demands perfection

"We really need to acknowledge that it’s ok for us to feel nervous, anxious, stressed out during this time," Chou shares. Rather than ignoring the strain on your mental health, Chou emphasises the importance of hitting the 'pause' button and taking a moment to evaluate what's happening in your external and internal environment. 

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"Take stock about what is within your control and what isn’t. If it gets overwhelming, write down what’s important to you right now, focus on what you can still do, and on whether there are alternative ways to do what you can’t." 

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Stop comparing yourself to others

In 2020, the pandemic forced us into our homes, trading social interactions and community life for a extended period of isolation, not to mention an overload of social media. While battling the pressures of 'comparison culture' is difficult enough on good days, Chou has this simple reminder as encouragement.

"Just because everyone is busy doing new things, it doesn’t mean you have to be doing the same," she says. "You need to focus on what is important for you."  

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Learn when to ask for help

"If you start finding that you aren’t managing as well as you would like, seek a counsellor or clinical psychologist and just spend some time with them. One common statement I hear from my clients is 'thank you for listening to me. I already feel better that someone is listening'," Chou shares.

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