Sabrina Ooi on destigmatizing mental illness: Your brain is an organ, and it can fall sick

By day, Sabrina Ooi helps brands in the APAC region optimize their digital customer experience as a customer success manager. In the evenings and on weekends, she’s a professional DJ by night. She’s also the co-founder of Calm Collective Asia, an online community for good mental health, where she has helped build a space to share practical and actionable strategies for better mental well-being through free virtual talks and normalising the conversation on mental health. 

Community members can ask Sabrina questions here.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

KrASIA (Kr): At what point did you realize there was something missing in Singapore’s—or Asia’s—support structures for mental health?

Sabrina Ooi (SO): We started Calm Collective Asia during the circuit breaker period, or the lockdown in Singapore. This was back in April. The trigger was the fact that mental health services were considered non-essential during that time, so if you had to see a therapist or psychiatrist and get medication, that was considered non-essential.

I was upset, because I’ve gone through my own mental health journey. It got me thinking about the people who really need that help, especially since it’s such a stressful time for all of us right now.

We started with the idea of a virtual summit at the start of May, where speakers share strategies to help people cope better, mentally, with distress related to the pandemic. It was supposed to be a one-off summit. But we got a really good response, and my co-founders and I were motivated to continue hosting talks for people.

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Kr: How would you describe the way people perceive mental health in Asia? Is there any stigma around it?

SO: We call ourselves Calm Collective Asia because we wanted to address the stigma that exists in this part of the world.

In Singapore, there’s still major stigma, because people don’t have the understanding or education about what mental health or mental illness is. Therefore, when someone has a mental illness, people are like: Oh, that person is crazy, let’s not talk to them.

That amplifies the isolation that people going through these challenges feel. For me, back when I had major depression, I had the privilege of knowing a friend who’d told me that he had gotten professional help for depression, and with the help of medication he started getting better. But it’s so expensive, so there’s a high barrier to entry. When I reached out to my parents, my dad told me to just sleep it off. And I’m like: No, I’ve been asleep all day, and the thoughts are still there with me.

My mom was trying to problem-solve and pinpoint the factors. I had a friend who’d passed away around that time and I was sad, but to the point that I couldn’t function, I couldn’t get out of bed, I had no motivation for anything. It just didn’t make sense. I really needed support to get treatment. And she brought me to a bomoh, which is a traditional witch doctor, and she was praying into lime leaves and water. It didn’t work.

One of my friends gave me a really good perspective on mental illness. He basically said: Your brain is an organ, and just like any other organ, it can fall sick. 

After a few weeks, I saw that the medication did work. I was able to accept that what I was experiencing was in fact some sort of illness, something biological, and it can get better with the help of whatever my body is lacking.

Photo by Kasia Pasierbiewicz.

Kr: How did you start the dialogue about mental health? 

SO: It was really hard for me. Back then, I felt really bad and reached out for help, but it’s honestly difficult to support someone with depression if you don’t have that awareness. If you’ve never been through it and come out of it in a better state, it’s really, really difficult to empathize with someone going through depression, anxiety, or any other mental health condition.

Back then, I didn’t successfully communicate or open up the conversation. I actually wanted to kill myself. The depression got so bad that I wanted to give up. I just couldn’t find any other way out because it’s biological. What could I have done?

I was arrested for attempted suicide—luckily, I was doing that in a public enough space, and some people saw me and called the police. Going through that whole experience, the fact that the police had come, and I was jailed and sent to the Institute of Mental Health, having them call my dad. . . It was really sad for me, realizing that it took all of that for my parents to finally understand that I needed help. There is a stigma, there is a lack of understanding. And that’s why a lot of people, I think, just give up.

Kr: How should we support someone who is dealing with mental health issues?

SO: When we’re talking or having regular conversations, we often listen to answer or solve a problem, but we don’t just sit with whatever the person has said. One of the key things would be to listen attentively without judging what your depressed, sad, or anxious friend is going through. You don’t have to problem-solve, it’s really about listening.

It’s important to project emotional stability. You can’t give when your glass is empty. When we’re encountering a lot of stress, we just don’t have the headspace, and that’s okay. Whenever you are spending time with your friend or loved one, you have to be in a good space and show that you can be their rock—for that moment, at least.

On the flip side, if you’re not in that headspace, it’s important that you say you can’t be there for them right now, but you care for and want to support them, maybe you will get back to them tomorrow. This gives them something to look forward to and reassures them that you care, as opposed to not replying.

Kr: If you could talk to a younger version of yourself, what would you tell her? 

SO: I would sit down and say everything will be fine, things get better. There’ll be bad days. but things will get better overall. It’s an upward trajectory.

I would say: You really need to take care of yourself, these are the ways you can take care of yourself. I would teach her the signs of depression, anxiety, how to get help. I would basically teach her Mental Health 101. I would tell her that her brain is just an organ, it does fall sick, and that’s okay, you can get help for that.

Beyond the medication or science behind it, it’s also a lot about personal development. I learned how to take care of myself and appreciate myself. The idea of cultivating self-love has been a big theme for me in the past few years.

Sabrina climbs across an obstacle course in Forest Adventure. Courtesy of Sabrina Ooi.

Depression and anxiety are triggered from stress, and that stress builds up when you’re trying to live up to someone’s or your own expectations. But when you let go of all that, you can come home to yourself, and have the self-love and self-confidence that will shield you from that kind of stress.

Kr: What developments would you like to see in Asia in terms of mental health care in the next five to ten years? 

SO: In an ideal world, we would be able to talk about mental health openly and get the help that we need. The vision that we have for Calm Collective is aligned with that. We host talks to normalize the conversation around mental health, so that we give people the confidence to seek the help that they need. We believe that there are a lot of people who are probably suffering, to some extent, because they’re either undiagnosed or not reaching out through the right channels.

I hope that schools in Asia embrace mental health by formally introducing these ideas within the school system. I hope that kids in the future will understand this, and that our generation and older generations will embrace these concepts.

There’s another thing about the Asian male stereotype, and how he has to be this straight and strong breadwinner, and he shouldn’t be showing his feelings or any vulnerability. I hope for a world where men, too, can be emotional and show their hearts on their sleeves.


Disclaimer: This article is part of our “Tuning In” series, where we interview and chat intimately with thought leaders who are breaking the mold, pushing the frontiers of innovation and are trailblazing figures in their space. All answers reflect the personal perspective of the interviewee herself, and not Oasis’s. If you’d like to nominate someone for our “Tuning In” series, you can recommend them here.

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