With the recent revelation of American rapper, Kanye West, being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, the condition has been brought into the spotlight. The term ‘Bipolar’ (meaning “two poles”) signifies the polar opposites of emotional highs and lows. As the name suggests, Bipolar Disorder is characterised by episodic, extreme mood swings in which the individual experiences intense mania and severe depression. Formerly known as ‘Manic-depressive Illness’, the disorder is a fairly common, yet serious mental health condition.
For individuals struggling with the disorder, manic episodes can last days to weeks and are often associated with hyperactivity, an irritable mood, rapid thoughts, increased recklessness, or an exaggerated sense of self-esteem and power. On the other hand, a depressive episode can last weeks to months. In this phase, individuals may experience increased restlessness, a loss of interest in activities (including those that they usually enjoy), poor concentration or disrupted sleep patterns. In more severe cases, these people may also possess suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
In order to help us better understand the condition, we interviewed Deborah Seah, a peer support specialist at Psaltcare.
Deborah started experiencing extreme mood swings in her early primary school years. Having known that her paternal family had a history of mental illness, she identified that her condition was most likely to be genetic. However, she had chosen to suffer in silence until 2 decades later, when she sought psychiatric help for postnatal depression and work-related burnout. At that point, she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder as well as Generalised Anxiety Disorder. For Deborah, the disorder reigned control over her life – straining her relationships with her loved ones. Before her diagnosis, others could not understand why she was being so unpredictable, and her erratic behaviour had unfortunately caused numerous misunderstandings.
“It was very challenging to manage my mood swings at the tender age of 8,” she shared. “When I was experiencing my highs, I would talk very fast, have tremendous amounts of energy, get very excited, or become easily irritable and agitated. On the other hand, when I was experiencing my lows, I would feel very sad and experience low energy levels. I could cry for hours or days over trivial matters and be even suicidal at times. The experience of dealing with bipolar disorder consisted of feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and loneliness as I could not predict or control my emotions and energy.” Deborah’s experience with bipolar disorder led her to face an identity crisis – being confused over her contrasting “personalities”, and not knowing which was the real her.
Just like any other mental condition, there are bound to be misconceptions of the Bipolar Disorder, especially if people don’t open up and address it. One such misconception is that individuals struggling with Bipolar Disorder are incapable of managing their mood swings. However, Deborah takes this as an opportunity to debunk such a sentiment: “After a certain point in time, I’ve arrived at a higher level of self-awareness towards my early warning signs, and it has enabled me to gain self-mastery over my condition. When my mood or energy level starts to dip, I’m aware of what could effectively help me to increase my mood and energy. When my mood or energy level is overly high, I know that I need to be extra mindful of not going into overdrive.”
While on the road to recovery, Deborah made a commendable effort in helping herself cope with the disorder. This included reading up on the condition proactively to ensure that she could better achieve self-mastery. Of course, finding a silver lining and staying positive is essential over the course of recovery. Keeping up with articles on others’ success stories and breakthroughs helped her to stay hopeful and confident that recovery is not impossible.
Being highly motivated to make headway towards recovery, Deborah knew that she needed to make changes to her lifestyle. For starters, Deborah:
ensures that she keeps to a good sleep routine and to have sufficient rest
adopts a healthy lifestyle by having a balanced diet and staying active through exercise
stays in a conducive environment for recovery where all potential triggers are removed as much as possible.
She also notes that her Christian faith has played an essential part. Daily prayer and spiritual devotion helped her to calm her mind and provided her with the much-needed inner peace. However, Deborah stresses that one should not brush aside the idea of peer support or psychiatric intervention. The active use of medications coupled with peer support contributed to the turning point in her recovery, and restored any lost hope when the future was seemingly bleak. Connecting to like-minded peers can help one explore new coping strategies and stay on a personal wellness plan.
“Upon knowing my diagnosis, my family took the initiative to purchase books on Bipolar Disorder to understand my condition better,” Deborah recounted. “My family gave me space when I needed it and continually held hope for me even when I gave up on myself. They didn’t pressurise me to make quick progress on my recovery but assured me that they genuinely only wanted me to be happy and that is all that mattered to them. I was deeply touched by their love and concern for me and felt motivated to work hard on my recovery because I realised that they would always be affected whenever I’m suffering.” Through her experience, Deborah holds a strong belief that the hope and support from her loved ones had an immeasurable, significant impact on her, and encourages those who are also supporting their loved ones with mental conditions to stay hopeful.
As of today, Deborah has made promising progress and is well on her way towards achieving mental wellness. After consistently attending a Recovery and Wellness Sustenance (RWS) Workshop at IMH, Deborah graduated with a certificate of participation. Recognising that she benefited much from the workshop, she returned as a Mentor to co-train the subsequent class of peers. In addition, Deborah also completed a module conducted by the National Council of Social Services (NCSS) and was involved in the facilitation for the 3rd and current 5th batch of Peer Support Specialist (PSS) training. She said, “It gave me confidence and reinforced my own recovery as I pay it forward and encourage my peers in their recovery journey. Moreover, it has equipped me with effective coping skills to deal with my mental health condition and it brought my recovery to a higher level.”
To end off, Deborah hopes to pass on an important message to the readers: “To me, there is no shame to be on psychiatric medication or seeking psychiatric help. Just like how people with diabetic conditions need to be on insulin while some people who are asthmatic need to be on Ventolin, people with psychiatric conditions need to take psychiatric medication too. Resilience in Recovery requires these 3 things: Courage – to embrace the past, Gratitude – for the gifts of the present, and Hope – to make the most of the future. I believe that everyone can recover from a mental health challenge, as long as he or she does not give up hope because I am the Evidence of Recovery myself! Everyone recovers at their own pace, just like every flower blooms in its season – let us hold the hope for our loved ones and for those who are battling mental health challenges by cheering them on and being their source of support to believe that recovery is indeed possible.”
“While the expat lifestyle can have a glamorous veneer, challenges often lie beneath. The experience of living overseas can be difficult and demanding, adding unique stressors to everyday living,” explains KRISTI MACKINTOSH, psychotherapist at Promises Healthcare, which provides holistic mental health and addiction treatment and recovery services to adults, adolescents and children suffering from all types of disorders. The clinic’s team of multidisciplinary specialists – including psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists, all with different expertise and specialisations – treat both local and expat patients on a daily basis.
In fact, studies show that expats as a group are 40 percent more likely to develop mental health conditions like depression, stress and anxiety, as compared to those who never move abroad.
“The challenging environment and less support than at home often leads to an increase in drinking, smoking, drug abuse – yes, even in Singapore – or self-harm to try and distract from the negative feelings.”
What’s more, the loss of the informal network of support from friends, family and acquaintances back home only compounds the stress and anxiety.
“Expats may often feel like they can’t share their difficulties because it seems like complaining or admitting to a failure. Isolation can lead to depression, and restrictions on travel and socialising because of COVID may have exacerbated feelings of social isolation for many expats.”
How counselling can help – and tips to cope
“It’s important to be aware of the unique set of challenges that come with expat life and ensure you’ve got a good support structure in place,” says Kristi. “One of the most important things you can do is connect. Humans are social beings. While it may require more emotional honesty or reliance on those around you than you might usually be comfortable with, connection and support from others is important.”
Additionally, you can help reduce stress by:
getting enough sleep to help regulate your mental and physical health;
eating a balanced diet to prevent deficiency in minerals that may cause low mood;
trying not to over-drink, over-eat or smoke; and
doing something that brings you joy – from reading a book to trying a new restaurant.
If you feel that you’re not coping or you’d like some extra support with your mental health, reach out to your GP or a professional counsellor or psychologist for therapy in Singapore.
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6397 7309 | promises.com.sg
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health condition characterised by the failure to recover from exposure to a traumatic event, bringing about intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to the experience. Contrary to the widely-held belief, victims of PTSD need not necessarily experience the traumatic event first-hand – PTSD can also arise from witnessing something shocking, terrifying or disturbing. Similarly, PTSD triggers can have a broad spectrum, and the cause differs for everyone. Not everyone has to go through extreme, drastic events such as a war to develop PTSD – the condition can also be brought on by other distressing experiences such as abuse, accidents, assaults, or even adverse health or childbirth-related experiences.
How is PTSD diagnosed?
As with most other mental health disorders, clinicians use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a guideline to diagnose PTSD. The diagnostic criteria below are specific to adults, adolescents, and children older than six.
Criterion A: Stressor
The person was exposed to death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence, in the following way(s):
Witnessing the trauma
Learning that a relative or close friend was exposed to a trauma
Indirect exposure to aversive details of the trauma, usually in the course of professional duties (e.g., first responders, medics)
Criterion B: Intrusion Symptoms
The traumatic event is persistently re-experienced in the following way(s):
Unwanted upsetting memories
Emotional distress after exposure to traumatic reminders
Physical reactivity after exposure to traumatic reminders
Criterion C: Avoidance
Avoidance of trauma-related stimuli after the trauma, in the following way(s):
Trauma-related thoughts or feelings
Trauma-related external reminders
Criterion D: Negative Alterations in Cognitions and Mood
Negative thoughts or feelings that began or worsened after the trauma, in the following way(s):
Inability to recall key features of the trauma
Overly negative thoughts and assumptions about oneself or the world
Exaggerated blame of self or others for causing the trauma
Decreased interest in activities
Difficulty experiencing positive affect
Criterion E: Alterations in Arousal and Reactivity
Trauma-related arousal and reactivity that began or worsened after the trauma, in the following way(s):
Irritability or aggression
Risky or destructive behaviour
Heightened startle reaction
Criterion F: Duration (required)
Symptoms last for more than 1 month.
Criterion G: Functional Significance (required)
Symptoms create distress or functional impairment (e.g., social, occupational).
Criterion H: Exclusion (required)
Symptoms are not due to medication, substance use, or other illness.
In addition to meeting the criteria for diagnosis, an individual experiences high levels of either of the following in reaction to trauma-related stimuli:
Depersonalization: Experience of being an outside observer of or detached from oneself (e.g., feeling as if “this is not happening to me” or one were in a dream).
Derealization: Experience of unreality, distance, or distortion (e.g., “things are not real”).
Delayed Specification. Full diagnostic criteria are not met until at least six months after the trauma(s), although the onset of symptoms may occur immediately.
How PTSD May Go Undetected
Not all individuals will have their condition diagnosed and recorded on paper. The pervasive misconceptions about its complex cluster of symptoms can hinder one from seeking treatment, or simply realising that one may be suffering from PTSD.
In the early onset of the disorder, attempts to weather the storm by turning to short-term coping mechanisms may include binge eating or distracting themselves with their favourite TV shows. However, this is not effective – nor is it healthy – in the long run. In addition, people with comparatively “less traumatising” experiences may feel as though they did not “earn” the diagnosis, considering that others might have gone through worse. This behaviour of downplaying one’s trauma can hold them back from seeking early treatment, as it may seem more convenient to adopt the mindset that they can quickly get over it in due course. With avoidance being the hallmark of PTSD, many victims turn to therapy only after long periods of struggling with the disorder, as if therapy were the last resort. But with delayed treatment, these individuals run the risk of having to navigate symptoms that, with earlier treatment, may never have developed in the first place.
Treatment Options for PTSD
At present, the evidence-based pharmacological treatment for PTSD involves the use of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), which include medications such as Sertraline and Paroxetine. While there are also other medications available, these two are currently the only ones approved by the FDA for PTSD.
SSRIs play a well-recognised role in the management of mood and anxiety disorders. Their mode of action involves raising the levels of Serotonin, a neurotransmitter vital in regulating mood, anxiety, appetite, sleep, and other bodily functions.
Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all. While SSRIs are typically prescribed to treat PTSD, there are exceptions depending on the patient’s medical history. Clinicians will have to consider the patient’s response to the drugs, existing comorbidities, and personal preferences. As such, medications have to be tailored to each individual’s needs.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
One of the more common forms of psychotherapy, CBT aims to tackle the maladaptive thought processes and emotions associated with one’s trauma. Trauma-focused CBT involves three main categories – exposure procedures, anxiety management procedures, and cognitive therapy. These aim to help individuals understand what they’re afraid of, learn healthy and effective coping mechanisms, and work through dysfunctional thoughts.
Moreover, having a therapist or psychologist that is trauma-informed can be of great benefit. A trauma-informed therapist is knowledgeable about trauma and can understand and empathise with how the traumatic experience could have impacted the patient. Prioritising physical and emotional safety ensures a smoother clinician-client collaboration, which in turn aids in increasing the transparency and efficacy of treatment.
Eye Movement Desensitisation Therapy (EMDR)
Eye Movement Desensitisation Therapy may be less commonly heard, but it is an efficacious, empirically validated treatment for trauma and other adverse life experiences. In a different vein from cognitive behavioural therapy, EMDR doesn’t focus on altering a client’s thought patterns or behaviours. Instead, it relies on one’s own rapid, rhythmic eye movements, allowing the brain to process memories and resume its natural healing process. Simply put, EMDR therapy involves guiding the client towards reliving triggering experiences in short phases while the clinician directs his eye movements. When the client’s attention is diverted as they recall the traumatic event, the exposure to negative thoughts and memories is less upsetting, limiting a strong or negative psychological response.
The year 2020 saw a rise in uncertainties. Many have experienced anxiety, job loss, a strain on finances and family relationships due to the impact of the pandemic. By default, couples need to adjust to working from homes, with blurred boundaries between work and family, lesser personal space and challenges in new routines. They may not have readily communicated effectively about their roles, given the constant changes in adjusting to tightening and lifting measures. Coupled with the labour crunch, families may find it increasingly formidable or costly to hire a helper to care for children, who are required to stay home for home-based learning or the care of elderly parents who may be weak and frail. This may inevitably lead to unresolved conflicts between the couple due to the stress and demands of constant transition and change. In 2020, a survey for mums showed that 60% of the participants rated their stress level at a 7 out of 10. In addition, 3 out of 10 of the participants felt sad most of the time.
Children and young people are not spared from the raging wave of anxiety. According to a survey conducted by Focus on the Family, kids are more anxious about exams than Covid 19 (The Straits Times, 18 Sep 2020). However, in an international study of 72 countries (including Singapore), only 6% of teens share their problems with their families (Impact of the Pandemic on Family Life Across Cultures 2020, Namad Bin Kalifa University). No wonder the CEO of the Institute of Mental Health says that “Gen Z faces different forms of stress, maybe more anxious, depressed than others before them (Today, updated on 1 Mar 2021).” President Halimah also urged Singapore to step up efforts to protect children’s mental health early (The Straits Times, 2 Dec 2020).
Given the tremendous stress that kids and adults are facing, families are stretched very thinly. Therefore, they ought to rise above their concern of seeking a mental health facility to deal with their issues early, so that family members can get the professional help they need.
It is timely for the family to consider attending family therapy to address and deal with the mental well-being issues, be it stress or anxiety collectively.
You may have some questions about family therapy, and here are some FAQs that seek to answer your questions.
Why Family Therapy?
Having to deal with unhealthy family dynamics constantly puts a toll on one’s mental wellness.Family therapy focuses on improving family communication; it deals with family conflicts, seeks and creates better functioning and environment. It provides family members with an opportunity to talk about how they think and feel, being affected by the issue they face. It enhances skills to facilitate healing. Therefore marriage and family therapy are essential.
Family therapy shifts the focus from blame, diagnostical lens, linear causality, and looks at circular causality in an issue. For example, a teen who exhibits school refusal may be staying home because of his worry and caregiving role to his mum, who is in chronic health and has a strained marital relationship with her spouse. It helps the family understand the issue confronting them in the family context and the larger contexts, i.e. the pandemic.
Family Therapy is often used to help treat an individual’s problem that has dire effects on the entire family, i.e. depression, anxiety and behavioural issues. This type of psychotherapy is also helpful in addressing family-centric problems, i.e. conflicts between spouses, siblings, parents and children.
What is Family Therapy?
Family therapy is psychotherapy designed to identify family patterns that may have contributed to behavioural or mental well-being concerns. The idea is to help family members break those habits as the family therapist involves the family in discussion and problem-solving.
What can I expect when my family and I attend a Family Therapy session?
During family systems therapy, the family therapist works individually and collaboratively to resolve their issue, which directly affects one or more family members. Each family member has the space to say what they think and how they feel as the issue affects them. For example, when a teen has anxiety issues, a family member gets to talk about how this issue impacts them.
How long is each session and how long is the therapy period?
1.5 hours per session over a period of 4-8 sessions, subject to review with your family therapist. Family therapy is a specialised counselling process. No one is a miracle worker. It takes time and commitment for the family to work through their issues.
Are family therapists trained?
Yes, systemic family therapists are trained with a Masters in Family and Systemic Psychotherapy, a specialised skills competency in systemic couple and family work. It draws on systems thinking and views the family as a unit. It evaluates the parts of the system (individual) in relation to the whole (family) and examines how an issue of one or more members of the family affects the whole family. It suggests that a family member’s behaviour or issue may be embedded in the family dynamics and influenced by the family of origin issues.
Family Therapists would have undergone at least 560 hours of academic instruction and supervised clinical practice, accompanied by years of experience.
When should my family and I attend Family Therapy?
It is always helpful to seek family therapy early before the issue snowballs and becomes more difficult or complicated to manage at the later stage.
Who should attend Family Therapy?
Immediate Family members in a family nucleus should attend Family Therapy, i.e. couples, parents, children (includes teens and adult children) siblings.
Does my whole family need to attend? What happens if I am unable to get all my family members to attend Family Therapy?
It will be helpful if your family can attend therapy together. However, it is okay if not all family members can turn up for therapy. The family therapist will collaborate with the members who come for therapy sessions.
How do I prepare for Family Therapy?
Discuss with your family members about attending therapy together. Think and write down what you want to discuss before each session. Then, ask your family therapist how you want to improve the communication in the family.
Is there confidentiality?
Yes, the session is confidential under the Singapore Data Protection Act 2012 (“Act”).
Therapy is an indispensable tool to recovery, or in helping one gain deeper insights and achieve self-actualisation. In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, traditional face-to-face therapy has been forced to take on various forms, including sessions conducted via telephone or through video-calling platforms. Of course, therapy serves the same purpose, regardless of whether it is conducted in person or otherwise. However, there is definitely something restorative about being able to connect with a therapist physically. Humans are innately social creatures after-all, and sometimes when things get tough, a little more human interaction and comfort can go a long way.
Physical presence in therapy certainly provides a deeper sense of connection, in contrast with virtual therapy where one might feel more distant and detached. It may seem bearable at the very beginning, but as you progress through the sessions, having to interact with your therapist through a screen all the time can get frustrating. Similar to how students may have trouble coping with online school and home-based learning, virtual therapy has some form of hindrance when it comes to relationship-building with your therapist. For most psychotherapy methods, it is indeed possible to shift them online. However, for others such as psychodrama, it may not be entirely ideal. How expressive and comfortable can you get, when you’re struggling to follow your therapist’s directives through the small screen and having to deal with technological lags?
Seeing your therapist in person also allows for him/her to detect any subtle body language and somatic movements. These are all non-verbal cues that may be lost through telecommunication. Non-verbal cues are just as important as verbal ones, and can provide your therapist with greater insights. Non-verbal signals can serve to convey your feelings along with what is being said, and can either reinforce or contradict verbal messages. Ignoring them would be very much a failure to be fully engaged in a conversation. Moreover, seeing you in person provides therapists with the ease to identify any form of dissociation. During the session, clients may not necessarily attune well, and may not be fully present in the moment. The client may be engaging with the therapist, but seemingly thinking about something else that is going on in their life at the same time. This does not mean that the session is unhelpful or “boring”. While this could simply be attributed to the lack of presence, it could also point towards other concerns regarding the client’s state of mind. Fragmentation can occur especially when one is recovering from a past trauma and can be brought to the forefront, causing incomprehensive emotional reactions when triggered. Fragments of self are usually suppressed, often attributed to the lack of a sense of safety when it comes to expressing their inner needs or desires. When these feelings start to show during therapy, therapists can identify them through common tell-tale signs such as a switch into dissociation, noticeable body movements (twitching, scrunching of fingers or toes etc.). Body language is not definitive, but can offer clues about one’s thoughts and feelings. With telecommunication, it is more often than not impossible to see the client below shoulder-level, thus making it difficult for therapists to assess any somatic movements that may be occurring.
Another issue with telecommunication is the lack of control over the therapeutic environment. In a traditional face-to-face session, the clinician has considerable control over the environment, and is able to ensure a private, safe and quiet space for the entire duration of the session. This limits the number of distractions and allows for both the therapist and the client to concentrate on psychotherapy. Moreover, in a clinical setting, furniture is often set up in particular ways to facilitate clinician-patient interactions. For instance, seats may be arranged such that the clinician would be facing the client at an angle of 45 to 90 degrees, and approximately 2 to 3 feet away. Facing the client directly can feel somewhat threatening for some, and this angle allows for the client to feel more at ease. Additionally, it allows for both parties to break eye contact naturally (intermittently) without seeming antisocial or distracted by having to do so actively. In contrast, having a session online or through telephone allows for less control over interactions and the client may be more exposed to external distractions or undesirable interruptions. This also leads us to our next point, where teleconsultations also increase the risks of privacy breaches.
Due to the lack of environmental control, having a consultation via telecommunication methods can be a challenge especially for those who do not have access to their own private space. For individuals living with others, there could be situations that compromise client confidentiality, including potential eavesdropping or having others walk in on them. Not only does this make the session extremely disruptive, it can be a huge concern for many considering that mental health concerns are sensitive topics. Clients must make the extra effort to find a suitable place and time for them to speak with their therapists freely and with ease. As such, physical presence in a controlled clinical setting may have the upper hand.
Nevertheless, this article in no way aims at undermining the efficacy of tele-health, nor to allude that tele-therapy is ineffective or pointless. Considering the need for physical distancing during the pandemic, telecommunication is undeniably crucial in limiting the spread of the virus. Putting that aside, traditional in-person therapy can have its barriers too, limiting people from attaining the mental health support they need. Individuals with disabilities may find accessibility to be a significant problem at hand, and find it difficult to travel for therapy without having others to rely on. Others include parents who are unable to find suitable childcare options, all while juggling work and mental health care. For those struggling with social anxiety and agoraphobia, it can also be extremely intimidating and overwhelming for them to step out. In fact, some research has shown that virtual and in-person therapy, depending on the treatment goal, can be equally effective. In adults, cognitive behavioural therapy was shown to be similarly effective both in vivo and virtually (Khatri et al., 2014). There is also evidence that youth with anxiety disorders respond positively via telehealth (Khan et al., 2020). Traditional face-to-face therapy and tele-therapy both have their perks, and we acknowledge that it also boils down to individual preferences. If you’re unsure as to which treatment option to opt for, do feel free to contact us.
Brenes, G. A., Ingram, C. W., & Danhauer, S. C. (2011). Benefits and Challenges of Conducting Psychotherapy by Telephone. Professional psychology, research and practice, 42(6), 543–549. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0026135 (Accessed 06/09/2021)
Khatri N., Marziali E., Tchernikov I., Shepherd N. Comparing telehealth-based and clinic-based group cognitive behavioral therapy for adults with depression and anxiety: A pilot study. Clinical Interventions in Aging. 2014;9:765. (Accessed 09/09/2021)
Khan, A. N., Bilek, E., Tomlinson, R. C., & Becker-Haimes, E. M. (2021). Treating Social Anxiety in an Era of Social Distancing: Adapting Exposure Therapy for Youth During COVID-19. Cognitive and behavioral practice, 10.1016/j.cbpra.2020.12.002. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cbpra.2020.12.002 (Accessed 09/09/2021)