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Mental illness, not mental weakness
PEOPLE Singapore

Mental illness, not mental weakness

Nine out of 10 people say those with mental illness can get better if they want to. And five out of 10 say it is a sign of personal weakness. Those results from a 2015 survey by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) in Singapore baffle Shafiqah Ramani, a mental health advocate who has borderline personality disorder.

"I always thought it was really funny that people see those with mental health issues as weak and can actually get out of their illness if they tried hard enough, but cancer survivors get called survivors," she says. "For people with mental health issues, everything can be a battle, such as getting up from bed. So I think fighting to do those little things every day is what makes you a hero."

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After trying to hide her feelings of being neglected by her father for two years, Shafiqah says she "imploded" and attempted suicide for the first time at the age of 11. In polytechnic, she was severely bullied by her classmates. This led to many more suicide attempts and a couple of admissions into IMH. Last year, when she was in her second year of university, she dropped out of school and had to be in a psychiatric ward for two months. "I still get haunted by suicidal tendencies, but I have a very strong reason to keep fighting because I'm not only fighting for myself, but also my friends."

You see, Shafiqah, is not just a mental health patient – she's a social entrepreneur who's tackling mental health issues through technology. She and her team have created Psychkick, a mobile app that aims to make cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – the most widely-used therapy for treating mental disorders – more engaging for patients.

Boring and outdated

In cognitive behavioural therapy, patients usually have to fill out a paper form between sessions. Some find this "boring and outdated" and about 60% do not do their CBT assignments properly, writing random things just before their next therapy session, according to Shafiqah's informal survey of 500 patients. The app aims to improve therapy outcomes by allowing active monitoring of patients between sessions and making the assignments more experientially appealing.

"Psychkick is basically a means for us to provide support for individuals with mental health issues. We call them heroes and we are like their sidekicks to help them in their recovery." The Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise has given Psychkick start-up funding for its beta-testing phase.

Shafiqah's work with Psychkick involves forging relationships with people with mental health issues, and seeing them regularly to find out what they like and dislike about their treatment.

In her quest to institute Psychkick in the public health system, she also meets with mental health professionals, IT professionals and health ministry officials. But her efforts to help her peers do not stop with the app. She has been speaking to government ministers about getting people with mental health conditions the same kind of support that those with physical disabilities get. She has also been sharing her story so more people understand mental health issues, speaking to psychology students at university and to other start-up founders, as well as at places like the Singapore International Foundation's Young Social Entrepreneurs programme, the LeapForGood initiative and a *SCAPE community youth project called In My Shoes.

"The view of many Singaporeans is that individuals with mental health issues are weak and can get out of their challenges through effort, but they wouldn't say the same for those with physical disabilities. I think one way to increase empathy towards individuals with mental health issues is to expose people to real-life stories and journeys. I share my struggles, the misconceptions from others even in my family, the current situation of mental healthcare and the gaps that have been unfilled for too long," says Shafiqah.

So does the 23-year-old see herself as a superhero?

"I see myself as a sidekick because I really want to see my friends empowered, to embrace what they're going through and say 'You know what, I'm strong. I'm a hero because I've been fighting against my mental health issues'. I want to continue supporting my friends and the future people I meet and say you are as much a hero as a cancer survivor."

Find out more about Psychkick, which aims to make cognitive behavioural therapy more engaging for mental health patients.

Psychkick is one of six winners in the 2016 edition of Singapore International Foundation's Young Social Entrepreneurs programme

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