Cover Sarah Ann Chou is a senior mental health supervisor at Doctors Without Borders in Malaysia

"People inspire me, especially people who show up when it is difficult, who persevere, who are compassionate no matter the odds," says Sarah Chou who is doing her part to make the world a better place with the humanitarian organisation

Meet Sarah Ann Chou, a clinical psychologist and senior mental health supervisor at Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in Penang. She is responsible for organising and overseeing mental health programmes for refugees and human trafficking survivors at shelters, immigration detention centres and healthcare clinics.

A firm believer in the resilience of the human spirit, the Petaling Jaya native herself admits that the pandemic has forced her to reflect on the importance of work-life balance and on the mental health needs of her own team members as they rethink the challenges of helping vulnerable groups amidst a global health crisis.

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For eight years, Chou worked with migrant and refugee communities as a trainer. Realising the stark lack of mental health support available for these marginalised groups, Chou became a psychologist and, in 2018, joined Doctors Without Borders. 

This International Women's Day 2021, we hear from Chou on common myths about mental health, her biggest inspirations and her incredible experiences at this international medical humanitarian organisation which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

When I was 12 or 13 years old. I remember my mother receiving a call at night about a group of stranded migrants from India who had travelled from Johor to KL only to be told that they didn’t have the work they had been promised.
Sarah Ann Chou

Growing up, did you always want to be a psychologist?

Psychology was not my first career choice. In primary school and early secondary, I didn’t even know what a psychologist was. I think it was in Form 3 or 4 that I came to learn about it and I realised that I had a particular interest in the human mind and behaviour. 

What first sparked your interest in mental health? 

My interest in mental health only surfaced after I graduated and started working with refugees and trafficked victims for a few years. It was not uncommon for me to hear the life stories of refugees, not only at my work but also at home, since my mother also provides aid to refugees and asylum seekers.

But it was when I started working with victims of human trafficking that the desire to do more for the mental well-being of the marginalised grew. I remember interviewing a survivor and as she recounted what had happened to her, I saw how she was both physically and emotionally affected by her experience. All I could think of was the little-to-no support she would receive when she returned. She had gone through so much and yet had almost no support system. I realised then that I wanted to work directly on supporting the mental health of marginalised communities. 

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Tell us about your work at Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

My work focuses on improving mental health access to refugees or asylum seekers and migrants through community psychosocial programmes such as group psychosocial activities and individual and group counselling.

Why did you decide to join MSF?

I believe in the work that MSF does and what they stand for (impartiality, neutrality, independence, bearing witness and being accountable). I hadn't known what it was like to work in an international organisation that truly practices what it preaches until I started with MSF. Here, we place patients first while ensuring that the principles we believe in are practiced in policy and also in the work. 

So what's at the top of your to-do list right now?

At this moment, I’m in the middle of conducting an intensive four-week training for our team members. We're also preparing to start a pilot mobile mental health and psychosocial support project as well as looking into starting psychosocial activities for women and men’s groups.

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Photo: Deiby Yanes/MSF
Above A Doctors Without Borders team member in Honduras (Photo: Deiby Yanes/MSF)

Is there any particular past experience that influenced your journey? 

The first time I was directly exposed to the troubles of a migrant group was when I was 12 or 13 years old. I remember my mother receiving a call from the late Irene Fernandez at night about a group of stranded migrants from India who had travelled from Johor to KL only to be told that they didn’t have the work they had been promised.

I remember my mother being on the phone trying to help find temporary shelter for this group. I followed her that night to the temporary shelter that they had arranged for them, all the while thinking 'why would anyone do such an awful thing to people?' 

How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your work?

The pandemic has been a good challenge to rethink the way we provide mental health services. It introduced me to the concept of working from home and the need to find a proper balance when doing so. As a mental health supervisor, there was also an increased concern for the mental wellbeing of my own team. While we think about our clients, we too are affected by this pandemic, and ensuring that we take care of ourselves was also important. 

Any particularly encouraging moments from your journey?

There are many. But one is when my clients say: “Thank you for listening to me. I already feel better that someone is listening." I realised then that no one really takes the time to hear about the plight of a refugee or migrant; to truly listen with your heart about what they are going through.  

What do you love most about what you do? 

The biggest impact for me is being able to transfer my skill and knowledge to those around me. To see lay counsellors with no prior mental health knowledge now able to provide effective and meaningful counselling to their own community. To influence Malaysians to find value in providing mental health care to the refugee and migrant population and see them take pride in their work.

What are some common myths about mental health in Malaysia, and how can we better address them? 

Firstly, that mental health means 'something is wrong with me', or 'only crazy people need counselling'. We need to understand what mental health is. Mental health isn’t just about seeking counselling; it also involves the person's ability to function, to have relationships, to work and to cope with daily stressors.

We need to also start having more conversations about our mental health and start to normalise health-seeking behaviours. The more we can talk about it, the more we normalise it, the less stigma will be attached to it.

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What is your proudest achievement so far?

My proudest career achievement has to be watching my team of lay counsellors who initially had no knowledge about mental health and counselling develop skills as good as qualified counsellors. I am filled with pride seeing them educate their community about what mental health is. Then there's also my Malaysian team members who had little experience working with refugees and migrants, but have now become advocates of their clients. All of them don’t just work for the sake for working, but they believe in what they do. 

Who inspires you most right now? 

People inspire me. People who show up when it is difficult, who persevere, who are compassionate no matter the odds, and who are not afraid of making mistakes, owning up to them and then making effective changes. I see this in my colleagues, and in my clients. As clichéd as this may sound, they are the ones who inspire me everyday to keep doing what I am doing and to do it well. 

If you could say anything to your younger self, what would it be? 

Be open to any experience and opportunity that comes your way. Fear and anxieties are just emotions but they don’t own you. Also, cars won’t fly in 2020. 

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