ABOVE: Various Instagram posts addressing mental health-related topics sourced from their creators.
Rachel Pang draws comic strips in which she is the starring character. But the monsters she fights are inside her head, and the story lines address her struggles as a sexual assault survivor.
Pang, 24, publishes them on an Instagram account she opened a year ago, where she has since published nearly 100 cartoons that are sometimes raw, sometimes funny – but always sincere. They’ve led some of her nearly 8,000 followers to reach out to share their own problems related to sexual assault, abusive relationships, and even stalkers.
“It started as a personal way to heal from my trauma and take ownership of my own narrative,” Pang said in a recent interview. “I realized the importance of continuing to share my story honestly and openly, in the hope that it can help readers in their own lives.”
She’s one of dozens of young Singaporeans who, instead of posting only OOTDs, travel destinations, and #foodporn, are carving out a niche for mental health solace in online spaces those seeking compassion and community can find free of shame and prejudice.
Mental health stigma continues to lurk in Singapore, where more than five in 10 people said they were unwilling to live near or work with someone with a mental health condition in a recent survey. The government last year launched its first campaign to fight this stigma and published findings of the poll to create awareness.
That unease extends into the digital realm, where it is common to see Singaporeans making jokes about the Institute of Mental Health, or IMH, when targeting someone appearing out of sorts in a viral video or photo.
On Instagram, however, through accounts like Pang’s @Rachelpangcomics, @Yourheadlahmagazine, @Penawarsg, and @Mentaldumbells, young Singaporeans are finding comfort through relatable posts — some of which have helped them better understand what they’re facing, be it anxiety, depression, or suicidal tendencies.
“The process of sharing our experiences can be liberating,” said Reetaza Chatterjee, founder of Your Head Lah! magazine – a collective of six young Singaporeans formed last year. They use Instagram to bring readers to their mental health-related content, such as stories of victim blaming, and organize support group sessions.
“Seeing our experiences reflected in those of others makes us feel seen and heard. It reminds us that our pain is valid. It enables us to look in, make sense of what we are going through, so that we are able to allow ourselves to reach out,” Reetaza added.
Singapore, we have a problem
Mental health education is not a big part of a young Singaporean life despite members of the public, including Nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong, who recently urged the government to make it mandatory.
Turning to the media for information doesn’t help much. Though coverage of mental health in Singapore has increased in recent years, most stories are told through an impersonal lens of survey findings and government initiatives. Very few wade into the actual problems suffered by people, including those who belong to marginalized communities.
“Often, the discourse surrounding mental health is dominated by medical experts such as psychiatrists, counselors, psychologists as well as people in close proximity to mentally ill people such as caregivers, but not mentally ill people themselves,” Reetaza said.
“This leads to reductive and dehumanizing portrayals of mentally ill individuals,” Reetaza added. Your Head Lah! prides themselves for telling diverse mental health narratives on their blog and Instagram.
But that doesn’t mean there is a lack of resources for mental health support in Singapore. There are several counseling centers and hotlines that provide mental health care for young people, such as the Institute of Mental Health’s Community Health Assessment Team, or CHAT, where those 16 to 30 are welcome to walk in and chat with a qualified counselor in a private space for free.
Working outside the system
A group of volunteers who call themselves Penawar (antidote, in Malay) have been providing support for the past year to young women seeking mental health issues related to being raised Muslim and Malay.
They have organized at least 15 support group sessions so far where around 10 individuals gather to share stories on themes like self-esteem, burnout, family pressure, among others – key issues the Penawar team has identified as common struggles of young Singaporeans.
“There is also the problem of isolation and loneliness which many young people struggle with, even in a heightened state of online connectivity. This is why community care is important, people need to know that they can reach out to someone when they are struggling,” a Penawar spokesperson wrote in a message, asking not to be named due to the sensitive nature of her work.
“Creating a physical space to talk about our struggles personalizes these experiences. We are very heartened by the courage of some of these young women to attend the sessions and to open up to a group of strangers about their experiences,” she added.
The Penawar team shares what participants say at those gatherings to their nearly 600 followers on Instagram. They also put in a lot of thought in the design of their posts to make sure they are Instagram-worthy.
“Instagram is very visual and very immediate. It captures your attention. We use Facebook too but because that operated as a closed group (to maintain safety) we didn’t get many people joining … It also makes sense to use Instagram for the target audience we’re reaching out to, which is mainly comprised of young people,” she wrote.
Boys Don’t Cry
Keeping it real
Then there’s Aaroson Koh and Tay Chun Hsien, who feel more can be done to create awareness or be more approachable to youth.
The two host Mental Dumbells, where they engage in frank discussions about mental health issues and what it means to be young dudes.
“Hsien goes to FeiYue for his counseling sessions, but it was a long time after being diagnosed,” Koh said, referring to the nonprofit centers throughout Singapore.
“There can definitely be more marketing efforts made towards making these services to be made known to the youth through online ads and such. They’re definitely effective as Hsien is currently better due to counseling, but we feel he could’ve used these services earlier if there were more marketing efforts or school talks or anything used to make it known to us that help was available,” he added.
Mental Dumbells seems to be the only account dedicated to young men. The duo post video blogs touching on issues faced by young Singaporean men such as rejection, relationship pressures, and pressure to fit certain expectations of masculinity.
“We are both in the age whereby we are learning a lot about ourselves and the world around us, to learn about everything from simple things like how to get bigger muscles, how to eat healthier, how to communicate with others effectively, how to manage stress and lots of other problems, all sizes,” he said. “Basically every step we have taken towards learning to be a ‘full-grown adult.’”
Singaporean society stresses the importance of masculine qualities as a measure of success, Wong Lai Chun of Samaritans of Singapore said in July.
That’s when the suicide intervention and support group revealed that 19 boys between 10 and 19 took their lives in 2018 — the highest recorded number since 1991.
“This has to change. Men and women alike need to know that it is OK to be less than perfect, and we need to educate the public to understand that a supportive and encouraging environment is far more beneficial than a judgemental one for our society,” Wong added.
It is still important that those with mental health struggles seek professional help instead of relying on Instagram.
Coconuts Singapore reached out to several mental health organizations in Singapore, but none has responded to inquiries, with CHAT saying it was unaware of an increase in youths turning to Instagram for support.
But IMH clinical psychologist Michelle Tan did note Instagram’s positive impact in a September journal article, saying that while social media invites negative social comparisons and lowers people’s sense of self-worth, it also helps relieve loneliness.
“(Social media) relieves social isolation and loneliness by offering the chance to communicate with others,” Tan said, recommending mental health-related accounts @Introvertdoodles and @Crazyheadcomics.
“The option of being able to do so anonymously may even give some users the courage to share their problems or engage in creative self-expression.”
This article, Conversations Singapore needs to have about mental health are happening on Instagram, originally appeared on Coconuts, Asia's leading alternative media company. Want more Coconuts? Sign up for our newsletters!