When I was told my intrusive thoughts were an indication of Postpartum Anxiety, I was asked to return for sessions with a Psychologist once every two weeks. However, one of the things that worried me most was about how I was going to take time off work without anyone finding out I was seeing a psychologist. I soon found myself running out of excuses for taking the mornings off, so I stopped therapy altogether. Looking back, I realized this decision was because of the following reasons:
STIGMA AND THE IDEA OF THE PERFECT MOTHER
It felt to me at the time that stopping therapy was better than having others know I struggled with my mental health. This was especially so since I had just become a mother. While the worries I had also stemmed from my own fears of being judged, it’s undeniable that there is still a great deal of stigma surrounding mental illness in Singapore. In a study done by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), 9 out of 10 respondents believed that people with a mental illness “could get better if they wanted to”. 50% of them also believed that mental illness is “a sign of personal weakness”. Such associations often suggest that the root of the problem stems from a personal defect and leads to labeling these individuals in a derogatory light. In another local study done on 940 youths aged 14 – 18, it was found that 44.5% of these youths attached negative labels such as “crazy”, “stupid”, and “dangerous” to people with mental illnesses.
Pair such beliefs with The Goddess Myth, a term coined by TIME Magazine for mothers worldwide, and we can see why maternal mental health issues are an even bigger challenge to talk about. Mothers, myself included, who struggle with mental health issues are sometimes afraid to seek treatment not only because of stigma, but also because of fears that their capability as a mother would be questioned. I was worried that, despite my hardest efforts to be the perfect mother, others would only see one that was weak enough to have succumbed to a mental illness, or one that was a danger to her son.
In an article on the stigma that surrounds mental health in Asian societies, it is noted that there are “common threads of shame and honor woven in the blanket of stigma that envelopes mental health problems”. It adds that this may stem from a predominantly Asian concept of “saving face” or “dignity associated with family”. In the study of youths, we see this in the results that found that “Chinese respondents tended to feel more threatened by mental illness”, as “having a mental illness may be a mark of “losing face” which can bring shame to oneself and one’s family”.
In interviews such as this, mothers have cited shame as a reason for not seeking treatment. Some others, like myself, decided to keep treatment a secret for fear that their family would be a target of questions and hurtful comments.
GENDER STEREOTYPES & TRADITIONAL BELIEFS
While we have made tremendous progress as a developed nation, certain stereotypes and traditional beliefs still remain. In this video, NTUC Income put together a list of stereotypes faced by Singaporean women that is all too familiar. While Singapore is progressively moving away from such stereotypes, a lot of people, especially those belonging to older generations, still seem to believe that women should be able to juggle multiple roles with little to no complaint or rest. Some may even fail to recognize why younger generations struggle with this and their mental health when they “had it much worse back in the day”.
This was evident in my fear of letting older relatives know about my condition. I am fortunate to have both my mother and mother-in-law care for my son while I work. I have a desk-bound job in an air-conditioned office and end work in time to have dinner with my son. How hard can life be compared to what they had to go through? What right did I have to say that I was struggling with anxiety when I was already failing to meet the expectations of the stereotypical female?
UNWRITTEN RULES AT THE WORKPLACE
Every workplace has its own set of rules. However, we also ought to pay close attention to the ones that are not in a company’s written code of conduct. While companies push forward with policies to allow employees better work-life balance, there is an unwritten rule in Singapore that employees who are the “first one in and last one out” are supposedly the most hardworking and productive. The fact that Singapore clocks the highest number of paid hours a year corroborates this, even if these long hours are unnecessary and translates into low productivity.
As a mother, I am faced with having to take leave when my son falls ill or if his care arrangement breaks down. I am fortunate enough to be granted leave. However, occasions where management has expressed subtle cues of dissatisfaction when employees take too much time away from work hovered over me like a dark cloud. Eventually, I put the idea of regular therapy on the back burner so that I could minimize my absence from work and save my leave for emergencies.
STIGMA STILL LINGERS
It is heartening to know that an increasing number of people are coming out to share their struggles with mental health. The media has also put maternal mental health in the spotlight, especially after devastating news of a Singaporean mother’s suicide in 2017. But we need not wait for tragedy to strike before we take the step to be comfortable with discussions about mental health. While we seem to have made significant progress and have built a greater awareness of mental health in Singapore, we ought to remember that stigma still lingers. And until we can eradicate that, there will still be people who will continue to suffer in silence.