Creating support systems to address mental health issues
Often, the most difficult elements that affect patients are not themselves but their support system and surrounding environment says Dr Sangeeta Kaur
In providing counselling sessions with her patients, Dr Sangeeta Kaur has discovered that often, the most difficult elements that affect patients are not so much related to the patients themselves but more to do with the patient’s support system and the surrounding environment. Contrary to the expectations of many, these elements could include immediate or extended family, close friends, work colleagues and those in their closest circles.
Sangeeta, who is a member of APA (American Psychological Association) and APEC (Association of Psychological Educational Counsellors of Asia Pacific) is also a licensed counsellor with Lembaga Kaunselor Malaysia. In her capacity as the CEO of Emerging Journey Asia, she is behind the development of the first mental health conference in Malaysia which took place from 18 – 20 June in Petaling Jaya.
When I asked Sangeeta why she developed this conference and what outcomes she was expecting, she explained her hope to break the stigma associated with mental illness.
“I’ve observed the term ‘counselling’ used improperly, of late, to the extent of incorporating personal bias and stereotype in doling out ‘advice’. While the intention to help through such advice is certainly noble, the personal and emotional influence behind solutions offered may lead to an adverse impact on the recipients when they choose not to adhere. By this, I mean that these recipients may be easily labelled as stubborn, not open to listening or more. In most of the counselling sessions with my patients, the most difficult elements affecting them are not themselves. Instead, the most difficult elements are the support network around them and their environment,” Sangeeta shared.
She went on to explain that, “Therefore, it’s difficult for those seeking help to get support from within their own familiar circle because these people are not suitably equipped nor possess the baseline knowledge needed to empathise and understand the mental and physical state of those who are going through mental challenges. Often, family members and those within the closest circle put high expectations on counsellors and therapies to miraculously ‘cure’ pre-existing issues and challenges that may have been brewing for many years. Some of these issues may have even come about during their childhood or a vital developmental stage of their growth. People can be quick to judge the symptoms of mental challenges, often labelling those who are going through it as lazy, incompetent, full of excuses and more. I believe that instead of succumbing to lifelong conditioning (that we need to be strong, brave and not show any weakness especially when we are faced with mental health challenges), we can make a concerted effort to break the stigma associated with this so that we can observe such challenges with more clarity.”
In this second article in my three-part series on mental health, Sangeeta talks about the need for cultivating mental health advocates.
One of the stated conference takeaways is that participants learn how to cultivate mental health advocates. Explain why this is needed and how this can be done.
Sangeeta: In addressing such challenges proactively, we can expect outcomes that will create sufficient awareness whilst nurturing a safe, supportive environment that provides encouragement. It usually takes years for individuals going through such challenges to discover and get better.
As #MyMHEC2019 was an experiential conference, participants would have learnt proactive intervention methods, learnt how to develop their own mental health first-aid kit and learnt how to correctly identify symptoms.
Most importantly, through self-assessment, they will also have learnt that an individual solution may not work for all. Participants were encouraged to maintain an open mind that embraced the notion that there are many solutions discoverable that can address different circumstances.
What role do you believe corporate Malaysia should hold in terms of mental health for the workforce?
Sangeeta: In addressing challenges and issues faced by employees, the Human Resources (HR) Department must take the lead and consider as equally important the impact of these issues on both organisation and individuals. For that to happen effectively, HR professionals should be equipped with skills such as active listening, non-bias, non-stereotype, rephrase / paraphrase, optimistic language and as such.
Next, the confidential nature of these conversations must be preserved and respected to prevent ‘stories’ from leaking out to other employees. This prevents any negative perception of that particular employee telling his or her story, as well as protects his / her mental health.
Additionally, organisations must look at separating mental health challenges from a person’s professional appraisal and evaluation. This is to prevent these issues from influencing the evaluation and avoiding negative outcomes that may affect performance, succession, promotion and other progression factors in a career.
Moving forward, corporations should up-skill their entire HR Department and the heads and/or directors of other departments so that they can be equipped with critical counselling skills, including important know-how in terms of counselling and therapy. Then, they should create an awareness platform within the organisation. This would serve as a safe space for employees to feel comfortable sharing, whilst slowly creating the necessary support group within.
What are some of the more important projects you’ve been working on that have an impact on mental health?
Sangeeta: Emerging Journey Asia, and myself personally, have been giving awareness talks in our office and selected schools (through personal contacts), conducting focus groups and providing counselling sessions to those in need.
When conducting training or presenting a talk, we found it a major concern that participants far too often share that they are going through stress, toxic office drama, difficulty in sleeping and also, depression. Sadly, some of them have reached the point of having suicidal ideas.
Journaling everything that makes you happy or sad is also important for you to understand your trigger points, acknowledge it and then work towards healing and growth.
As they go through counselling sessions with me, other counsellors or therapists, we have observed some developments. There is change happening within them especially when they start to take ownership and take action about what they think and feel is right for them. Encouraging them toward recovery is important.
For example, a client attempted suicide after several challenging bouts of depression. After a few proactive sessions, the individual shifted from just wanting to sleep to be able to go for an evening walk for 15 – 30 minutes a day.
That, in itself, is a good development. Journaling everything that makes you happy or sad is also important for you to understand your trigger points, acknowledge it and then work towards healing and growth.
Do you believe that support systems need to be created within organisations to help manage mental health?
Sangeeta: Yes, it is important that organisations take the right step forward towards creating a support system.
This starts with a strong base for respecting individual rights (on confidentiality), appropriate skillsets to address issues, being up to date on methods for coping, refraining from seeing oneself as a rescuer, being an active listener, embracing diversity and many more.
Taking an interest in an employee needs to go beyond group dinners or having a sports club. These are only short term solutions and do very little in terms of employee emotional and mental wellness.
Mental help needs to go much deeper so that employees can create the work-life balance they want. Balance here goes beyond the typical 50/50 as most of us expect and is far more about the five elements: spiritual, family, work, friends and social. A good balance of these five elements ultimately leads to effective self-care.
How do you believe organisations can take proactive and positive steps to address mental health issues in the workplace?
Sangeeta: Once leaders themselves embrace and extol the virtues of mental health awareness, the organisation can then move towards a proactive and positive direction.
How do you think people can cope better by putting theory into practice?
Sangeeta: Theory is for people to know that there are ways or solutions for an issue. Theories can be modified and adapted according to the environment, situation and how comfortable a person is while implementing it. So, there are no hard and fast rules or right/wrong ways. What works for me may not work for you.
We need to understand this well – that by getting to know ourselves better and through trial and error, we gain a better understanding of how to practise and implement these theories.
What are some skills and strategies individuals can adopt to better manage their mental health?
Sangeeta: There are many available. Here are a few of the most commonly-practised techniques:-
- deep breathing – always take five or more deep breaths;
- grounding techniques;
- relaxing your shoulders;
- observing gratitude;
- acknowledging negative / unpleasant thoughts and rephrase/paraphrase them.
Tell us about the Certificate of Mental Health Advocate@work. What do you hope to address by having this certificate?
Sangeeta: The Certificate of Mental Health Advocate @Work is the first step towards advocating mental health awareness. It is both a promise and a gift to oneself so that you can look after your mental health first.
It shows an appreciation that self-care is essential. It boosts confidence by equipping you with proactive knowledge to give support and assist others through basic advocacy skills, intervention as well as coping skills that you’ve learnt, experienced and put into practice throughout the three days.
Where we can get more information on this topic?
Are there any tasks or activities you suggest people get started with?
Sangeeta: One thing you can do every day when you wake and before you sleep is to say ‘Thank You’ for the day to people, family or for anything you want. Most importantly, say ‘Thank You’ first to yourself.
This is my three-part article series on mental health that features:
Dr Sangeeta Kaur has broad-based experience in psychometric assessment and human capital development. Her passion and belief in the human potential drove her to establish the application of the Emergenetics Profiling Framework for a wide spectrum of industries.
She is a regular speaker at conferences on human capital development and has more than 20 years of experience in training and human capital development. She is a speaker and advocate on personal security in cyberspace.
Sangeeta spoke at the Mental Health Experiential Conference. Organised by Emerging Journey Asia, this conference took place 18 – 20 June at Sheraton Petaling Jaya Hotel.
Headline image courtesy Amy Treasure via Unsplash.
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