'It's very heartbreaking': Sister of masked woman who harassed livestreamers speaks out
In a recent viral video, a woman wearing a skincare face mask was seen kicking food belonging to a couple that were livestreaming. Her sister speaks to CNA about her mental health condition.
SINGAPORE: The sister of the woman who was recently captured on a viral video kicking a couple's food said she hopes the incident can raise awareness about the struggles that people with mental health issues face.
In the video, the woman was heard telling the couple, who were livestreaming outside an MRT station, that they were not allowed to take a video there. She ordered them to “switch off that thing before I call the police”.
The couple refused to and exchanged words with her, and she kicked over their bags of food. The female streamer followed her and appeared to slap her on the back. After a commotion, another female passer-by eventually restrained the masked woman.
The Jun 28 incident was streamed live on the Twitch platform and an article about the incident was later published by alternative news site MustShareNews. One of its TikTok videos, cut from the original livestream, amassed 1.2 million views on the social media platform.
Online comments appeared to be split into two camps. Some expressed support for the female streamer who hit back, while others called the masked woman "siao" (Hokkien for "crazy"). Some TikTok users even used the original audio of the woman’s voice in their own videos.
In the comments section of the same video on Facebook, several people pointed out that it was obvious she was "not in the right state of mind", and questioned why the video was uploaded in the first place. They called for empathy, rather than "shaming and criticising" her.
Shortly after the story went viral, the woman’s sister contacted CNA, revealing that her sister “has a mental illness”, saying she wanted people to know about the struggles her sister and their family face.
“When I saw (the news) ... my initial thought was I was quite sad to see my sister being treated in this manner,” said Pearlene (not her real name), a 37-year-old property agent.
"I cried. It’s very heartbreaking ... There are a lot of such people on the streets, and usually what you do is just walk away if you know there is something wrong with them."
CNA contacted the couple who livestreamed the incident, but they did not respond.
ON HAVING A SISTER WITH SCHIZOPHRENIA
From around two to three years old, her sister “displayed symptoms of autism”, and is currently being treated for schizophrenia. She “has a lot of hallucinations and always thinks there’s someone trying to harm her”, Pearlene said.
After the viral incident, Pearlene spoke to her sister, who is 41 this year, about what she did.
Her sister did not appear to be bothered that the incident went viral – the livestreaming couple were being “a public nuisance”, she said. This, Pearlene said, illustrated her sister’s “never-say-die attitude”.
She suggested that what could have provoked the conflict with the livestreamers was her sister’s view on what was “normal” to her, and highlighted that some “schizophrenia patients don’t really understand what they are doing” or “have no control over what they are doing”.
“I asked her why she was wearing a facial mask. She told me (in Mandarin) that she felt her skin was dry that day, so she just thought of using the mask. So I was telling the social worker this morning that what seems wrong to us is a normal thing to them,” Pearlene said.
“I also saw a lot of people mocking her for not wearing a bra. She told me that if she doesn’t wear a bra, she won’t need to wash it, then she won’t need to spend money to buy one either. Is that a wrong answer?”
Recently, Pearlene’s sister “relapsed” and threw their father, who was her main caregiver for many years, out of the house. She felt he would “bring a demon to harm her”.
She was admitted to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) and then discharged, only to be sent back to IMH after the viral incident, shared Pearlene.
Police told CNA that she was apprehended on Jun 28 under Section 7(1) of the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act 2008, and that no injuries were reported.
Addressing online comments about why her family doesn’t put her in institutional care or have someone look after her at home, Pearlene pointed out that “as caregivers, we cannot be there 24/7”.
“Her main issue is that she’s not taking her medication which is something we can’t enforce also. For IMH, they can get someone down to administer injections for her, but their mandate is more like, if she said no, they can’t force it either,” she added.
“Doctors did tell us that if she relapses a lot, eventually she will lose a lot of brain function. But even when we force her to take her medication, I’ve seen her side effects. Her hands will shake, she will drool. It’s quite a sad sight to see.
"What we can only do is whenever things happen, we just firefight.”
They have two other siblings, but Pearlene said she is closest to her sister.
Pearlene’s job as a property agent also allows her to have some flexibility in her time, such as helping to clean her sister’s house due to the latter’s hoarding habits.
But having a family member with schizophrenia means “basically your whole life stops to have her in sight and you spend a lot of time on this person”, Pearlene said. She also had “a lot of conversations with the police” in the few weeks since the incident.
Their mother died when they were children, and their father doesn't have “a lot of information and knowledge about mental health issues”.
“Because we grew up in a family without a mum, so our family, to be honest, is quite broken. All of us fended for ourselves and we weren't very close as a family,” Pearlene said.
“And to some extent, when we were younger ... I was even quite ashamed to have her as a sister. But when I grew up, I realised that she doesn't want it to be that way as well.”
Pearlene said her sister can be considered “high-functioning”. She “was very good in her academics” and is even a certified traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, but “it’s just that the mental illness is in her”.
She tries to find work but is unable to hold jobs for long due to her condition.
“Throughout her whole life, she’s pretty much looked down upon. Even some of our relatives will try not to be so close with us. They don’t want to be associated with us.”
Mental health practitioners told CNA that empathy is key to approaching situations such as the viral incident.
Most people with mental health issues “look like an ordinary person on the street, just like you and me”, said Mr Benjamin Tay, head of the case management unit at IMH.
“In some cases, depending on the nature of the illness, they may appear withdrawn, anxious, or sometimes, disoriented. They don’t all behave in the same way but like any of us, may react negatively to bad experiences and provocations.”
As such, when a family member displays signs of a mental illness, stigma remains the main challenge the family faces in seeking help, said Mr Tay.
“(There is also) difficulty acknowledging the illness or accepting the diagnosis. Another challenge they may face is when their loved ones are not compliant to treatment, which can take the form of medication or psychotherapy or both.”
Mental health literacy is thus an important factor in facilitating “help-seeking behaviour”, noted IMH in a media release on Thursday (Jul 14) to launch its second national mental health literacy study.
The first such study conducted in Singapore in 2014 found that recognition of five mental health conditions – dementia, alcohol abuse, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia – ranged from 12 to 66 per cent, with schizophrenia being the most poorly recognised.
To increase mental health literacy, Sabrina Ooi, co-founder of Calm Collective Asia, a social enterprise that aims to normalise conversations about mental health in Asia, said “it’s important to talk openly about mental health with curiosity and compassion”.
“We’re often quick to judge or go on the offence or defence when someone’s behaviour or thought process seems abnormal to us,” she added.
A lack of mental health literacy also leads to misconceptions about people with mental illness, noted Dr Annabelle Chow, clinical psychologist at Annabelle Psychology.
“A common perception is that (these people) are violent and aggressive to others around them. This is a misconception. Most individuals with mental illnesses are not aggressive unless provoked,” she said.
With schizophrenia, Dr Chow pointed out that the condition is “widely stigmatised” and “associated with being violent and dangerous to others”.
“However, most individuals with schizophrenia are not violent and do not present any danger to others. Sufferers often experience hallucinations and delusions and might seem confusing to outsiders when they respond to the voices that they hear in their head,” she added.
“Coupled with disorganised thinking and being unable to coherently express themselves during an episode, people might become fearful of individuals with schizophrenia.”
HELP AVAILABLE TO CAREGIVERS
Mental health professionals also acknowledged that caregivers and family members bear the bulk of the stress.
“Caregivers often experience low social support due to the stigma and loneliness that accompanies caregiving. They may feel isolated and judgment from those around them, with few to turn to for support. Caregiving can also give rise to emotional difficulties experienced by the families,” said Dr Chow.
She highlighted several free support groups, such as Caregiver Alliance, Touch and Club Heal.
“Finding a support group can provide caregivers with additional resources that can be employed in their caregiving or provide them with social support from other caregivers who are going through similar experiences. Seeking support in a group setting also allows caregivers to provide unique insights to the challenges that caregivers face,” she added.
“In the event a caregiver feels overwhelmed by their situation and requires individual support, they can also seek counselling services or access resources shared within a support group.”
Over at IMH, a “multidisciplinary team” provides care to the patients, said Mr Tay.
They engage with caregivers or families to understand patients’ needs better and “to identify any potential challenges they might experience along the way”.
“To aid their recovery, case managers will discuss with families and link them up with a community partner, such as a family service centre or a social service agency, close to their home for continuous support (which can include counselling and financial support) in the community,” said Mr Tay.
WHAT CAN THE PUBLIC DO?
As for what people should do if they encounter others exhibiting disruptive behaviours in public, even if they are unaware it’s linked to a mental illness, approaching the person is one option, but safety is paramount.
“If you feel safe to approach the person, ask if they would like to talk. It can be helpful to express that you do not want to intrude, but want to be a listening ear if they would like company,” said Dr Chow.
“When encountering a person in distress, it is important to ensure the safety of yourself and the person first. … It is crucial to understand that it is not your responsibility to resolve the situation. Do not physically or verbally assault the individual even if you feel frustrated or insulted.”
Similarly, Mr Tay pointed out that members of the public can treat such individuals “like anyone else who is anxious or angry”.
He suggested talking to them in a soothing tone, acknowledging their concerns and offering them a seat.
“Alternatively, we can offer the person a drink and hear them out. Or if they are alone, ask if they would want someone familiar, be it a friend or family member, to be contacted or to come meet them. We should also be neutral and empathise with them rather than challenge their perspective as this may escalate the situation further.”
And should the situation show signs of escalation, “we should avoid any suggestive, challenging and sarcastic remarks, and refrain from teasing the person”, added Mr Tay.
“Keeping quiet and leaving the scene can also help to avoid further excitement or confusion to the person.”
For Pearlene, the viral incident with her sister boils down to a lack of empathy.
“It’s very clear that this person has a mental illness, so just try to avoid them. This person is someone’s child, someone’s sister, someone’s family member.”