Mental health is not talked about enough and oftentimes, trivialised in Asia. It is a prevalent issue that has a huge impact on many societies around the world. Now more than ever, mental wellbeing is constantly being discussed, especially during this period of time where we’ve had an unexpected curveball thrown at us due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. The virus has impacted the livelihoods of many people globally. And with that comes stress and anxiety. In Singapore alone, it has been reported that there could potentially be an increase in suicide rates among youth. In fact, there was a sharp uptick in the calls made to hotline services and agencies, like the National Care Hotline, which recorded calls from over 23,000 people as of April this year. This is where Calm Collective Asia comes into the picture.

Fuelled by the desire to foster an Asian-centric community for individuals tackling mental health issues led to the inception of Calm Collective founded by Sabrina OoiAlyssa Reinos, and Luqman Mohamed. Sparking conversations online since the circuit-breaker, Calm Collective has quickly gained momentum on their social platforms and website with many people tuning in to speakers that range from clinical psychologists to life coaches. These experts touched on topics related to the different facets of mental health through the virtual talks, and personalities such as Aimee Cheng-Bradshaw and Narelle Kheng also joined in the panel to share their experiences dealing with mental health in some form.

Here, we chat with the founders of Calm Collective on how they got started, what they’re currently working on as well as how we can normalise the conversation of mental health and become better pillars of support to our loved ones.

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What inspired you to start Calm Collective?

During the circuit breaker period, we were disappointed that mental health services were initially considered non-essential, especially when we were aware that the isolation and anxiety around COVID-19 was taking a toll on our mental health and of those around us. Calm Collective was started because we wanted to have something that could address the importance of mental health and give people actionable coping strategies that could help them during the lockdown, but it’s grown to so much more than that now.

What do you think are the main mental health concerns within the Asian community?

The stigma around mental health is still very strong in Asia, preventing people from getting the help they need. Awareness surrounding mental health is also quite limited in Asia, so many people don’t necessarily have the vocabulary to describe their own mental health issues, much less to understand how or when to get help. 

There are also unique cultural experiences that affect Asian mental health. For example, how filial piety can create guilt even if there is a toxic family environment or the intense academic pressures that parents might place on their children growing up – experiences that warrant a conversation that takes into account these cultural dynamics. 

How does Calm Collective hope to address these topics?

We create and host casual, accessible conversations around mental health in Asia that go beyond the surface level. As Calm Collective was conceived during Singapore’s circuit breaker, we’ve hosted all our talks virtually through Zoom webinars, Facebook livestream sessions, and Instagram Live.

Our speakers so far include mental health professionals, public figures, and even some of our own friends. Most recently, we’ve had musicians Narelle and Benjamin Kheng join us in an intimate sharing session on how they take care of their mental wellbeing.

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of discussing mental health through digital platforms?

Overall, it’s emerged for us that actually digital platforms might be better for mental health talks like ours because it is way more accessible, especially for those who really need it. For example, for those who suffer from depression, leaving the house to attend a physical event can present a huge barrier, while clicking on a link to watch a webinar is that much easier. 

Hosting these discussions on digital platforms has also enabled us to reach more people in a shorter amount of time. We’ve probably accelerated our growth much faster than if we had started this during normal times because the circuit breaker gave us a captive audience with more time on their hands. We also find that people feel more comfortable fielding questions freely since there’s a layer of anonymity asking questions online, so we’re able to address questions that audiences might normally be too afraid to ask in person. 

The one disadvantage would be that we don’t know who exactly we’re helping because we can’t see or meet our audience in person. 

What has been the best thing you’ve learned from your guest speakers?

One of our guests, Jolene Hwee who’s a psychologist and director of Clarity Counselling, spoke about how the way people present with psychological symptoms are very culturally bound. Asians tend to present first with physiological symptoms like stomachaches or insomnia because we don’t necessarily have the emotional vocabulary to describe what we’re feeling. Thus, one of the key highlights from her talk was the importance of the mind-body connection, and getting people to be aware of how the two are interconnected in order to be more in tune with mental health.

Benjamin Kheng shared how men are reluctant to share their emotions with each other, so the best way to get a male friend to open up is to ask how they’re doing twice and also to ask them one-on-one, opening up a safe space for them to share without trying to diagnose them or give advice. 

Another key takeaway is that mental health is an ongoing process rather than a destination. One commonality of all our guest speakers is that they all have a regular practice of taking care of their mental health, for example through journaling, meditation, or practicing gratitude.

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Why is it so important to talk about mental health?

Talking about mental health is one way to de-stigmatise it and break down societal misconceptions. By hosting these webinars, we were able to own the conversation and tell things like it is from an Asian perspective.

The more it’s talked about, the more it’s normalised. The less shame people will feel, and the more likely people will get the help that they need.

Hearing stories about how others manage and overcome their mental health struggles can also give others hope. Very often, it’s the sad stories that are amplified in the media, like when we hear of a celebrity suicide, for example. But what doesn’t get as much coverage are the stories of recovery and the importance of ongoing management. 

What are some ways that we as a society can advocate for mental health?

There are so many layers to mental health and so many directions at which you can approach mental health advocacy. It can be as simple as proactively checking up on friends, really asking them how they are feeling mentally, and creating a safe space for them to share without judgment. Another way is to educate yourself on mental health issues and proactively dismantle negative stereotypes that you encounter, whether that’s within your family, with friends, or at work. In the workplace, if you manage employees, one simple way to advocate for mental health is to normalise taking or granting mental health leave. Stigma isn’t something that can be dismantled overnight but must be chipped away at from many different directions.

With our events, we really want to go beyond skimming the surface of mental health issues and delve deeper into topics that are rarely talked openly about in Asia. We’re grateful our guest speakers have been so forthcoming with their own stories and experiences around mental health. In a way, that’s only possible because each of our team members’ has had very personal experiences with mental health, and we’ve been open about sharing our own lived experiences in our conversations.

How can we normalise mental health conversations in Asia?

We hope that beyond our events, our audience can take the topics we address (for example how to get professional help for mental health, how to take care of your mental well-being, etc), and continue these conversations with their families, friends, and colleagues. 

What are your plans for Calm Collective?

We plan to keep the conversation going while expanding to more platforms and diving deeper into specific topics. We’re also looking forward to more collaborations with organisations to lead the conversation on mental health for their communities. 

In the immediate future, one thing we’re really excited about is our new series #ifeelyoubro which will be focused on men’s mental health, kicking off on the 20th of August. 

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