Mental well-being during COVID-19: The rise of intimate sharing sessions with strangers
As informal initiatives spring up to help people talk about what they’re going through, many find it easier to open up than they thought. Can this change the approach to mental health after the circuit breaker?
SINGAPORE: There is the Institute of Mental Health. And then there is the “Institute of Mental Hygiene”, which was exactly what Sheryl was searching for during the “circuit breaker”.
So, on Apr 25, she spent one and a half hours sharing her struggles with six people — a mixed bag of strangers and friends on Google Hangouts.
“This was like hanging out with friends for a smoke. It felt good to have people to commiserate with, and listening to others’ problems gives you a different perspective to your own,” said the 29-year-old, who asked to remain anonymous.
The Institute of Mental Hygiene was a set of four sharing sessions organised by her friend, Farhana Ngieng, and Sheryl participated in the first one, which was on relationships at home and general feelings about life during the circuit breaker.
The second covered working from home, while the third delved into romance and self-love. Participants got to prepare for the selected themes and took turns to share their thoughts during the sessions, which happened over four consecutive Saturday nights.
To Sheryl, her session felt “different” from her regular FaceTime chats with friends. Its purpose allowed her to express herself freely, without feeling like she was imposing.
“I had a couple of scares in the weeks leading up to the circuit breaker, and my emotions were dismissed as an overreaction by a few people who were close to me, so I was dealing with a lot of frustration. I needed a listening ear and people to validate my fears,” she said.
“But it’s not as if I couldn’t function ‘normally’. So it didn’t make sense for me to call a hotline or seek professional therapy, especially when resources are limited now. I’m sure there are people out there who are more affected than I am.”
The sessions are among several informal initiatives springing up with the COVID-19 situation, to help people talk about their mental well-being and what they are going through. And many are finding themselves at ease in these group or one-on-one settings.
READ: COVID-19: Worries about pandemic see more calls to mental health helplines
LIKE “INTIMATE, MARATHON CATCH-UPS” WITH FRIENDS
For her part, Sheryl saw the Institute of Mental Hygiene as a middle ground between an official hotline and a FaceTime conversation with a friend.
Participants were hand-picked by Ngieng, who considered the sessions a “high emotional risk activity”. They mostly know her but not others in the session. And they are willing to be vulnerable enough for the session to be rewarding.
“If someone isn’t on the same wavelength, there might be a difference in the way we talk — the tone or the language,” said Ngieng, who has facilitated professional workshops. “I need that ‘equal’ environment to make it a safe space.”
The 28-year-old posited that participants, who were part of a private Facebook group, resonated with each other also because they shared a similar background in communications.
There was “a lot of ‘oh my God’ and nodding heads” because people were able to “specifically describe their feelings”, cited Ngieng, who wanted “candid conversations” guided by certain themes to form the essence of the sessions.
The Institute of Mental Hygiene was similar to the “intimate, marathon catch-ups” she was already doing with individual friends. “(We) talked about what we thought about love, about life — these sort of things just organically came up,” she said.
“It happened so many times with so many people that I thought, you know what, they could benefit from hearing each other’s perspective, since I found myself repeating to one friend what another friend said.”
The informal nature of the sessions also enabled participants to share intimate or offbeat revelations. For instance, two participants came out of the closet during a session, which she did not expect.
Another shared his method of getting parents to believe accurate news reports.
“(He) said you should send a message to your aunt and uncle, then ask them to forward it to your parents. Then your parents will believe. You fake the fake news, so that they get the right news,” she related.
“But this kind of advice, if you say it outside (the session), you might get judged.”
LESS GUARDED ON COMMON GROUND
Ngieng is aware that an initiative like hers might be self-selecting, only attractive to those already inclined to talk about their emotions.
But for Cai Xin Chen, 26, who finds it “hard to talk about (his) feelings even with (his) friends”, the trick is to use a topic he is passionate about as a springboard.
He attends the weekly Netflix parties organised by Sherman Ho, co-founder of social enterprise Happiness Initiative and a member of A Good Space, a local co-operative for change-makers.
Discussing films, Ho believes, is a way to reach Singaporeans who would hesitate to have a video conversation with a bunch of strangers.
His Netflix parties get participants to watch a film together, recreating the camaraderie of cinemagoing. After that, they hop into a Zoom chat.
“These movie discussions give us a platform to open up about the issues we want to talk about or even our own emotions. Some discussions made us think of (our) purpose and passion,” said Cai.
“People came with the same mindset of improving themselves during this time and finding out more about mental health and happiness. So I felt comfortable opening up.”
While Ho created the Netflix parties to bridge the physical distance between people rather than to help mental well-being specifically, he found the conversations drifting towards mental health owing to “a lot of uncertainty over the future”.
“We’re all social creatures, so we derive our happiness ... through a sense of belonging with people around us. We can still have that social connection. That’s why conversations are very important,” he said.
Similarly, Grace Ann Chua, the 26-year-old co-founder of Friendzone SG, connects people within the same neighbourhood through gatherings guided by things like what people are passionate about and what is weighing on their minds, in order to foster deeper connections.
Living in the same estate also created more opportunities for people to hang out with their new friends after the gatherings that used to be held in HDB pavilions prior to the circuit breaker.
“Our events are mainly conversation-centric. Word of mouth is very powerful. People can tell you something all the time, but when someone new says it to you, you’re like, yeah!” she said.
“Even the act of articulating what we're struggling with helps us externalise and make sense of our emotions.”
Since safe distancing measures kicked in, the community has taken these chats online, where participants are still grouped according to their neighbourhood.
Conversation starters are now tailored to the times, such as how people have adapted to the COVID-19 situation, what they have learnt about their family, what is difficult about staying at home and what they are looking forward to as the circuit breaker ends.
These conversations help people to “get out of their own headspace” by bringing together people from different life stages and backgrounds in a non-judgemental space.
Participants get to hear perspectives on varied experiences, like the challenges of disrupted schooling, the frustrations among front-line staff, and the joys and pains of remote working with children at home.
READ: COVID-19: Guarding against burnout, compassion fatigue and trauma in frontline healthcare workers
“Some people look forward to sitting outdoors and having teh si, or hanging out with their friends or partners,” said Chua.
“By talking about their neighbourhood, like their favourite place to eat, you also get to establish a sense of common identity.”
If being vulnerable within a group is not one’s cup of tea, one-on-one chats provide respite.
Within a month of being established, the National Care Hotline received over 6,600 calls, with many callers seeking help with anxiety, emotional support, financial concerns and marital disputes, among other concerns, stated a report on Apr 29.
WATCH: Singapore's National CARE hotline has received 6,600 calls since its launch on April 10 (2;26)
But some seek something less formal than a hotline, or to speak with someone who might not be a trained professional.
Individuals like 30-year-old Louis Puah plug this “gap”. He posted a Facebook status: “For the month of May, I'd like to extend an invitation to anyone who needs help, that I can provide.”
In the comments section, he listed a few ways he could help. One read, “If anyone needs a listening ear, about their relationship struggles or work struggles, I'm happy to hold space for you to share and talk about it.”
He received six requests, for things like career advice, and also reached out to “a kid who was struggling with stuff”.
Even though Puah tries to commit a month every year to help people with random requests, he felt that the circuit breaker exacerbated people’s desire to connect. Their requests also brightened some of his otherwise dreary days.
“There’s still a stigma — that people seek help only when their mental health issues are severe or causing problems,” he said.
“But you’d take care of your physical health even when you’re well, like by taking vitamins. Having regular conversations about how you’re doing or what you’re struggling with keeps you sane.”
Similarly, Tan Yang Er, a 26-year-old multidisciplinary artist, posted several Instagram stories offering to set aside a couple of hour-long slots on Tuesdays and Thursdays to provide a listening ear for students on social network Houseparty.
“When I pitched the sessions, I did it in the context of ‘hey, I’m a big sister, I’ve been a mentee and mentor’. It’s like sharing your break-up story with a girlfriend,” she said, cautious about dispensing mental health advice.
With more than 6,000 followers, she amassed enough students to schedule 12 sessions, of which the majority were one-on-one.
The sessions, which she termed TherapyParty, were deliberately intimate, but she was still surprised that students were willing to pour their hearts out to a stranger.
One of the most memorable incidents for her was a video call from a girl in a stairwell outside her family’s three-room flat.
As one of the rooms was rented out because they needed the money, she had to find somewhere she could talk.
“Halfway through, she teared up and kept apologising. I told her it was okay,” recalled Tan. “The whole point is to give them a safe space to share and to have someone listen with no judgement.”
After the sessions, the students were allowed to continue communicating with her over e-mail. She did not want them to “feel abandoned” after “having a very emotional connection with someone”, but she also wanted them to “understand the boundaries”.
Knowing she had to give each student “100 per cent of (her) focus” made her more aware of how she was taking care of herself.
“I made sure I slept well the day before. During the hour in between each session on the same day, I meditated,” she said.
“I’d be super drained if I’d done back-to-back sessions, so that hour break was intentionally scheduled too. After the sessions, I’d go for a run to recharge.”
NOT ONLY FOR THE YOUNG
Hoping to harness the power of conversation for the older demographic, Eleanor Yap and Carol Kuan started Project Buddy to get volunteers to speak with lonely seniors over the phone.
READ: COVID-19: Ensuring the elderly don't become isolated during the outbreak
Yap is the founder of Ageless Online, while Kuan is a community builder at U 3rd Age. So they are familiar with running a senior-centric initiative.
Still, they expected “like 10 volunteers” — not 170 within the first three days. The volunteer sign-up has since been stopped.
“It made us tear a bit when we thought of why people volunteered, from a 16- to a 70-year-old. They understood what ... isolation meant, so they wanted to help,” said Yap, 50.
“When I was putting together the volunteer sign-up sheet, I wondered how many seniors you’d have a conversation with during a week. I put down a range: One to five. I was like, no one’s going to pick five. That’s a lot!”
But there was a volunteer who offered to call five seniors and indicated his availability for all days of the week.
Yap and Kuan, who are members of A Good Space, currently receive referrals from organisations like the Agency for Integrated Care. But seniors can also sign up independently.
The seniors and volunteers are paired according to preferences such as dialect and gender.
“It’s quite remarkable to have someone call and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Just checking in’, especially during this period that can be extremely lonely. Just hearing a friendly voice makes one’s day,” said Yap.
‘HACKING’ MENTAL HEALTH
While sharing one’s struggles with strangers can offer occasional catharsis, James Lim, the founder of social enterprise Emmaus Strategies, wants to create long-term, tangible and accessible solutions for the individual where mental well-being is concerned.
Lim, who is also a member of A Good Space, started a COVID-19 quiz that required 226 participants to make self-assessments of their stress level in five categories: Digital, physiological, relational, vocational and psychological.
The quiz found that four in 10 reported elevated stress levels; the top three stressors were relational, physiological and digital; and at-risk groups included youth and those with mental and physical health concerns before COVID-19.
Separately, Lim organised Hack Care, an online COVID-19 mental resilience hackathon. Participants rallied to “co-create solutions” to mental health challenges, such as those expressed in the quiz, and to put together a resilience toolkit.
He believes that when the circuit breaker ends, “mental well-being isn’t going to be people’s priority any more” — once they become overwhelmed with work. So he wanted to come up with “operationable” solutions.
READ: Our approach to mental health needs to change. COVID-19 will force us to — a commentary
These include opting for the radio rather than television or other screens as an entertainment source, exiting chat groups that are emotionally draining, and using mealtimes to transition between different parts of one’s routine.
“When I was dealing with burnout, many ideas given online were principles-based: Things like you need to take care of yourself, you need to draw boundaries. Okay, I know I need to take care of myself, but how?” he said.
“MIT (Most Important Task) helped with my sanity and routine, so I put it into the toolkit. Let’s be realistic — we can’t do much in these times. This means I focus on the top two or three tasks, then I call it a day and spend time with my kids.”
In the meantime, the simple conversation appears to be the solution to isolation, anxiety, depression and other struggles with mental health, as ground-up initiatives like the Institute of Mental Hygiene, Friendzone SG and TherapyParty demonstrate.
All one needs is a willingness to listen and share — and a stable data connection.
Where people can find support and companionship:
– The Happiness Initiative: happinessinitiative.sg
– Friendzone SG: www.friendzone.sg
– Project Buddy: tinyurl.com/ProjectBuddy
– Emmaus Strategies' mental well-being resources: tiny.cc/thrive-over-c19
– The National Care Hotline: Call 6202 6868
– Samaritans of Singapore: Call 1800 221 4444