FOR ALL OF FASHION’S FINERY AND GLAMOUR, MENTAL HEALTH ISN’T SOMETHING THAT IT’S NAILED GOING BY THE LUMINARIES IT HAS CLAIMED (THIS YEAR MARKS THE 10TH ANNIVERSARY OF ALEXANDER MCQUEEN’S TRAGIC SUICIDE). THE STRESS AND BURNOUT THAT COME WITH THE INDUSTRY’S CUT-THROAT PACE FOR IDEAS, MERCHANDISE AND CONTENT MEAN THAT THOSE WORKING IN IT ARE 25 PER CENT MORE LIKELY THAN OTHERS TO EXPERIENCE SOME SORT OF MENTAL ILLNESS, ACCORDING TO REPORTS. THE GOOD NEWS: CONVERSATION ABOUT IT HAS BEEN ROUSING IN RECENT YEARS, ESPECIALLY WITHIN THE CREATIVE COMMUNITY. KENG YANG SHUEN GETS FIVE SINGAPORE WOMEN FROM VARIOUS DISCIPLINES WHO HAVE BEEN VOCAL ABOUT THE CAUSE TO SHARE MORE ABOUT WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW, ERASE AND DO NEXT ABOUT MENTAL WELLNESS.
Featuring a succession of 21 models dressed in all-white ensembles that resembled straitjackets, the opening of Gucci’s Spring/Summer 2020 show last September was meant to be symbolic of creative director Alessandro Michele’s desire to break free and try something new, he told the press post-show. All the same, it was hard to ignore its association with mental health, an issue that’s become a growing epidemic in the relentless fashion industry.
In the totalitarian classic 1984, one of the ways in which the existing system exerts control over its citizens is by eliminating undesirable words from the dictionary. The logic: You can’t express yourself or your ideals properly when you don’t have something as fundamental as the vocabulary with which to articulate them.
A scenario in which people are not equipped to address painful topics is a familiar one in not-so-long-ago days when mental health disorders were perceived as something shameful, to be covered up or carelessly dismissed with variations of “you’ll get over it”. Even in the so-called liberal world of fashion, it’s an ongoing problem – this even though the list of its geniuses who suffer from depression and succumb to suicide keeps on growing (the latest being the heavily lauded modernist couturier Josephus Thimister, who died last November at age 57).
Despite having her most decorated and successful year in 2019, model Adut Akech wrote on Instagram that it was the “worst year” for “Adut the human, not Adut the model” due to her depressive disorder. As omnipresent and unstoppable as he might seem, Virgil Abloh had to famously take three months off from the business – including missing his own Spring/Summer 2020 Off-White show last September – because his doctor had said his schedule was getting too much for his health.
In fashion, the main outlet for dealing with the industry’s madness seems to be, quite simply, to bow out – temporarily or otherwise; no further discussion. (And don’t forget to do so with a great dress and big smile on your face.)
Over here in Singapore where – according to a 2016 study by the Institute of Mental Health – one in seven people suffers or has suffered from a mental health-related issue, the landscape seems to have shifted though. Beyond traditional institutions such as Samaritans of Singapore and the Singapore Association for Mental Health, there are more grassroots – and creative – avenues to discuss and build communities centred around the topic.
Take the non-profit Singapore Mental Health Film Festival for example, which debuted last year at The Projector, screening movies on a breadth of mental health conditions (Alzheimer’s, bipolar disorder, even anxiety) in the hope of getting guests to better understand and talk about them. Online, independent websites and publications such as the youth-run Your Head Lah! (YHL) and Beyond The Hijab, meant to be a judgment-free space for Muslim women, have popped up in recent years. Using a mix of stylish illustrations and candid, highly personal storytelling, they aim to be platforms where – in the words of YHL – “marginalised voices are amplified” so that people can “learn and empower ourselves to take care of ourselves and our communities better”.
The faceless comic artist Rachel Pang, who runs the popular Instagram account @rachelpangcomics where she addresses issues ranging from sexual assault to sexual orientation through whimsical, wittily captioned comic strips, recognises the uptick in people speaking out – and its benefits. “It’s not that there has suddenly been a huge increase in the number of mental health survivors in Singapore,” she points out. “It’s that activists here have been fighting to create an environment in which talking about mental health has become slightly easier so more people have been coming forward with their stories.”
If acceptance, openness and education are fundamental to solving one of the industry’s – and world’s – most prevalent and disturbing problems, then perhaps it’s high time that fashion becomes less show and more talk. After all, it is 2020. So we struck up conversations with five Singapore women from various creative disciplines. Not all of them have direct links to the fashion industry (didn’t we say that living in a bubble is part of the problem?), but all have personally dealt with and are publicly pushing for greater conversation and awareness of mental health in their own ways. Virgil Abloh, join us next time?
ON THEIR OWN MENTAL HEALTH STRUGGLES AND HOW THEY DEAL WITH THEM NARELLE KHENG
(NK): “Depression feels very rocky because you’re constantly being thrown into different states of mind and you don’t always have a good grasp on what is reality. Your mind puts out false narratives so you’re constantly having to restructure and it’s very tiring. To deal with it, you first have to admit that there’s a problem. Once you can do that, spend a lot of time trying to understand the underlying issues. For me, I find journaling and being very attentive to your own mental state helpful. I was reading a lot on psychology and philosophy, and trying to find any sense of structure that made sense to me. Being able to have open conversations with trusted friends also really helps.”
Sarah Naeem (SN): “I grew up with rather serious body image concerns. I had anorexia; was bulimic for a period and then went the opposite extreme and became very fitness-conscious. If I didn’t go to the gym for two hours, six days a week, I’d beat myself up about it... Your sense of self-worth should not come from the way you look, but for a lot of women, body image is the only way we know how to derive it. I also began to grapple with anxiety in my early 20s (she’s 28) and was diagnosed with depression some time back... Therapy has been really helpful. Now I’ve got a much better handle on my anxiety. I know what I need to do for myself and can recognise what I’m feeling and where it’s coming from. That comes with a lot of self-work, journaling and talking to friends who are more self-aware and getting them to help re-contextualise things in a way that might not have occurred to me. It also helps to realise that managing mental health is a long and constant journey.”
Rachel Pang (RP): “I was diagnosed with depression in 2016 and PTSD in 2017. I don’t have PTSD symptoms any more, but I still get depressive episodes. Therapy and community are the two most important things in my own ongoing healing. I was thankful that my university offered free psychology services so I could see a therapist without cost... Individual therapy offered a nonjudgmental space to understand what I was going through and someone to unpack my unhealthy internalised thought patterns.”
Cheryl Tan (CT): “I’ve battled suicidal tendencies from a young age as well as periods of depression. As a kid, I did not realise that I had mental health issues, but till today, I can remember almost every episode when I had struggled. Then in 2008, I attended my first yoga class. I spent the first few years struggling to understand my intention for starting the practice and it wasn’t till 2011 when a teacher’s words struck me: ‘Before you can love anyone else, you need to be selfish and learn how to love yourself. Without doing so, you won’t be able to love another.’ A few months later, I moved from Vancouver to Toronto and began using yoga as a tool to navigate through my struggles.”
Nisa Ngaiman (NN): “A few years ago, I encountered a personal crisis and it affected my mood tremendously. I felt tired all the time and questioned my self-worth often. I was not kind to myself. With the encouragement of my loved ones, I decided to seek counselling myself. That gave me a safe and non-judgmental space to make sense and come to terms with the crisis as the matters that I needed to process were very scary and overwhelming.”
ON COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS SURROUNDING MENTAL HEALTH
NN: “Some of the common misconceptions about mental health disorders are A) It’s just bad attitude – one is too lazy, too scared, lacks drive or just moody or emotional and B) one is either mentally healthy or mentally ill – once you have a disorder, you will never be mentally healthy.”
SN: “That if somebody appears strong or is able to go about his or her day and work ‘normally’, he or she doesn’t have issues and isn’t struggling. We’re often not educated enough to realise that mental health can impact us in many ways. You might think that you’ve got a handle on something, but it can manifest in different ways. A lot of people don’t know or think enough about the importance of being able to understand the true cause of a recurrent issue or identifying unwanted patterns in their lives. I also hope that people realise that one doesn’t have to look sad to feel sad.”
CT: “People have to understand that mental health – even though unseen – is akin to physical health. We require mental muscles to be resilient when adversity hits us. We can hit the gym and gain physical muscular strength and be able to carry 10kg of rice in each hand, but when your family member, friend or colleague aggravates you, will you know how to control your anger or frustration? Would you know what the triggers are? When we can understand these triggers, we can create better boundaries and choices for ourselves to thrive and find peace. All this requires a good understanding of our own mental landscape.”
ON THE MENTAL HEALTH LANDSCAPE IN SINGAPORE TODAY
NN: “We have more and more people speaking up and advocating for mental health, which recently has resulted in policy and legislation changes. For example, people with mental health conditions no longer need to declare their condition in job applications. There have also been amendments in the Penal Code so that attempted suicide is no longer a crime. The advent of social media had also led to great initiatives like the Instagram account @mysafesphere (started by Female beauty contributor Faz Gaffa) that helps to reduce the stigma of mental health issues. The fact that we have such amazing ground-up initiatives tells me that people are more empowered to make improvements to our mental health sphere.”
SN: “There’s definitely growing conversation about the topic, but through my own experience, there remains a lack of true understanding and acceptance on the part of institutions... You might have an open and comfortable working environment, but mental health is such a sensitive and personal issue. It’s not enough to talk about things on a surface level. For example, you know how companies in recent years have been using rainbow decals and posting on Instagram about how they support the pride movement? It’s mostly just marketing. We need actual structural change. Are these companies really implementing sound policies that empower their employees beyond what is being said?”
RP: “It’s terrible. I think we have to say it as it is to be able to identify the issues and make things better... Some of the key issues include lack of awareness; stigma; questionable methods of dealing with mental health such as how being institutionalised could be more traumatising than helpful; limited resources and access to them – therapy is expensive and insurance doesn’t cover it.”
ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN FASHION AND MENTAL HEALTH
CT: “Clothing, accessories and makeup are tools that allow us to express ourselves and our identity. As shallow as this might sound, we inevitably judge ourselves and others by appearances so fashion does influence and correlate to how we feel emotionally and mentally. When we see beautiful images in magazines or on social media, we seldom question the complexity of issues that the subject might be facing – and there’s almost no way of knowing. The fashion industry does pride itself on perfection and could lead readers to continuously strive towards an unrealistic goal that could be mentally and emotionally stressful. At the same time, publications, brands, influencers can potentially serve as great platforms. That Female is doing this story and asking these questions is a great testament of the value the title sees in raising awareness for mental health and humanising fashion.”
NN: “In recent years, the fashion industry has been increasingly using its platform to celebrate individuality, diversity and empowerment and I imagine that this would have a positive impact on mental health. I’ve seen how my clients use fashion – for example, big colourful earrings or a smart shirt – as an avenue to express themselves and reclaim their sense of self and improve their confidence.”
ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SOCIAL MEDIA AND MENTAL HEALTH
NK: “Social media is definitely a big topic for conversation here because social media is technically not conversation. A lot of it is people being narcissistic and while there’s so much noise, people aren’t really talking to one another. Social media also tends to represent only one aspect of reality. That’s why it was important for me to try to change that narrative such as by making it okay to post things that are not necessarily pretty. I battled a lot on my own because you realise that not everybody understands mental health. People would come up and ask things like, ‘Are you okay? Why are you so sad?’ when inside, I’ve been feeling inexplicably sad for a lot of my life. It’s just that I’m talking about it now. It doesn’t mean I’m sadder now. In fact I’m happier because I’m more open about it.”
CT: “The festival has served as a great platform for us to share and collect stories and create a community that is willing to listen and offer words of kindness and encouragement. It has also allowed us to understand what audiences would like to know about mental health and help clarify any misunderstanding or doubts. Ironically when it comes to consuming social media, I feel that it has detrimental effects on a person’s self-esteem and ability to be present. For example, we turn towards our mobile devices multiple times a day in uncomfortable moments or while on commute... And since social media is largely unregulated, negativity from keyboard warriors might cause mental distress.”
ON NEW PLATFORMS ONE CAN TURN TO FOR HELP
RP: “Your Head Lah! is a mental health collective and online publication started in 2018 that amplifies marginalised voices. It advocates for community care and the recognition of structural factors in the cause of mental illness. The team is in the midst of compiling a list of good therapists with notes on those who are queer-affirming, racial oppression aware etc.”
NK: “I know that the local start-up Safe Space is trying to create an app that makes communication between users and counsellors easier. I’ve tried calling services like Samaritans of Singapore myself, but couldn’t get through. When I was doing research for my EP, I also realised there are a lot of people working in these specialised institutions who don’t understand how to communicate with people struggling with mental health issues. That said, I was at *Scape recently and noticed this place on the top floor called CHAT (short for Community Health Assessment Team and formed in 2009, this is an organisation of healthcare professionals who provide mental health assessments to those aged between 16 and 30) and took some brochures that were quite helpful.”
ON CHANGES THEY’D LIKE TO SEE IMPLEMENTED HERE
SN: “As a small business owner, I’m at work every day and have a personal relationship with everyone who works here, so I’m able to talk to them one on one and understand them better... What I’d like to see is big companies making systematic change and implementing policies that allow their employees to have more of such conversations and not just among those on the same hierarchy level, but also directed towards those who are higher up in the chain of command... We also need to better educate children from a younger age to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental illness. People need to take this matter more seriously because from my own experience, people get really uncomfortable when you try to talk about it. Sometimes it’s not because they don’t want to, but more that they don’t know how to.”
NK: “I’d like to see people slow down a bit and place greater value on holistic things that can’t be easily quantifiable – art or dog walks for example; things that help keep us in touch with reality. That also means more spaces in nature where people can pull away from the hustle and bustle and find some peace.”
RP: “There are so many small changes that can be implemented in the short term and alleviate the situation. For example, school counsellors shouldn’t have to disclose personal information, insurance companies should start covering mental health and there should be a thorough review of institutionalisation practices.”
NN: “In Singapore, I don’t think that we have fully explored technology’s potential in providing mental health support and intervention. I would like to see more local e-mental health services here. With the availability of more such services, I believe more youth will be able to get the help that they need.” This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
As director of the Singapore Mental Health Film Festival, Cheryl Tan hopes to use film to spotlight the topic as she says the medium can help people empathise more easily with those struggling with mental health conditions. The second edition takes place in October.
Singer Narelle Kheng has been speaking out on social media about her struggles with depression and dissociation. Out next month, her deeply confessional EP Part 3 has provided an outlet for her to confront things she’d normally have retreated from, she says.
The uber-stylish Nisa Ngaiman is a counsellor who works with youth regularly. She says it’s important to learn as much about one’s own mental health condition and to go to therapy if it’s recommended by a professional.
Comic artist Rachel Pang started her whimsical yet intelligent IG account @rachelpangcomics in response to the controversial appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court last year. She attributes its popularity to her candidness on sexual assault (she’s a survivor) and other “taboo” topics.
Former graphic designer Sarah Naeem is the founder of The Moon, a bookstore/cafe on Mosque Street that specialises in titles authored by women and persons of colour. It also holds events for marginalised communities.
Six years after he staged a show in a makeshift asylum, Thom Browne again elicits commentary about mental health in fashion with his Spring/Summer 2020 show that featured models tottering around giddily in tweed skirt suits with extreme panniers and tulle veils like brides on a high. To accompany the entire affair: an aptly schizophrenic soundtrack that segued from classic musical to thrash metal to the Teletubbies theme song.
THOM BROWNE CATWALK PHOTO SHOWBIT.COM