Lending a voice

In conservative Asian societies like ours, mental health issues can still seem taboo. Luckily, some people are willing to speak up — including these two musicians who are using their voices to raise awareness.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

In conservative Asian societies like ours, mental health issues can still seem taboo. Luckily, some people are willing to speak up — including these two musicians who are using their voices to raise awareness.

My Reading Room
Ananya Birla, 23

The singer, who is from Mumbai, is also an entrepreneur and the co-founder of mental health initiative MPower.

You co-founded MPower, an initiative that aims to remove the stigma around mental health problems and provide resources for those who are afflicted. Was there a specific moment that led you to this?

My mum went through postpartum depression after I was born. So I was more aware of the issue after she told me her story. And when I was in university, I saw people crashing all the time, from panic attacks and anxiety. Mental health is just not talked about enough, especially in India. It’s so sad because the stigma is so bad that even if someone tells their parents about their problems, their parents might not even want to talk to a doctor because they don’t want other people to think that their son or daughter is “crazy”. 

Do you think that’s because of shame, or is it a lack of awareness on how mental illnesses come about?

Both. So what we’re trying to do is to break that stigma. The next part is to provide the right services. MPower is basically a one-stop resource providing the services of psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists to those who need it.

 One thing that’s helping these days is when celebrities, influencers, and thought leaders come forward and say, “Yes, I’ve been to therapy, and you know what? I’m still successful”.

Generally speaking, people in their mid-20s tend to be a lot more outspoken about mental health. Do you think our generation is breaking that stigma?

Yeah, for sure. I don’t think it matters if it’s on a large or small scale, just the fact that something is changing right now is important. Even if it’s just 50 people having this conversation now, we have to start somewhere.

MPower has been in operation for over a year now. What’s been the best part of the experience so far?

Seeing the progress we’ve made. When we first started we had no one walking in, and then one week, we had one patient. Now there’s over a hundred people visiting the centre.

What would you say are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

It’s been very tough to figure out how to break the stigma. We’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t change somebody’s mindset just by telling them that this is the way it should be. Instead, you have to put it across in a way that gets them thinking about it from another perspective.

I’m also working on a helpline, because there aren’t enough helplines in India. I did some research, where I called one up and said, “I’m not feeling well, I need your help”, because I wanted to see to what extent these people could help me. But they basically said, “We can’t do much to help you, is there a friend with you? Just go to sleep”. Literally, someone told me “you just need to go to sleep”. If I was someone who was suicidal...

Do you think things like this happen from a lack of training, or from a lack of compassion?

Definitely lack of training. It’s a lack of education and awareness as well. People need to understand what it actually means when someone has depression, or anxiety.

You’re a musician, and a mental health advocate. When did you decide these two should go together?

It’s not about how they should go together, but music is giving me the platform to talk about issues that are close to my heart. That’s just one of the advantages of being in the public eye.

My Reading Room
Leon Markcus, 21

One of this year’s CLEO Most Eligible Bachelors, singer-songwriter Leon Markcus is very open about his struggles with mental health and anorexia.

In your music video for “Alive”, you tackled the topic of suicide. Why did you choose this theme?

It’s something close to my heart. ‘Alive’ basically talks about how you can do no wrong in life because everything is an experience, and nobody should ever feel like nothing good is going to happen and that they are undeserving of living.

Were you initially apprehensive about broaching such a topic, especially since you’ve been sponsored by the National Arts Council (NAC)?

Yeah I was, initially. After recording the track, I was wondering if tackling such a sensitive topic in the music video would turn people off. I had this fear because suicide is still quite a taboo topic in Singapore. I did some research and realised that besides SOS, there’s very little support for people who are suicidal. The Noise Matchbox, which is a grant provided by the NAC, was pretty supportive about the entire venture, which gave me a confidence boost. 

What inspired you to write this song?

I got the inspiration for ‘Alive’ from my personal struggles with depressive thoughts and an eating disorder. I was bullied in school, and those bullies made it seem like no matter what I did, it was not possible for me to do anything right. At that time, I felt like the worst human being on the planet and that I deserved nothing. The saddest part was I never saw the value in myself. 

You’ve said before that you want to start a foundation for youths who are at risk. It feels like there’s a story behind that.

When I was being bullied in secondary school, and we didn’t have any real form of support. The teachers shrugged me off and the bullying just continued. I felt like an outcast, and it was really hard trying to figure out who I was and what I was worth. Things would have been easier if I’d had the right support system – one that allowed me to be open and discuss things that I did not understand about myself. When I pursued a diploma in early childhood education, I realised that more could be done to improve how values are taught in school. Things like bullying aren’t really discussed, so people who are bullied often keep it to themselves and that can be really detrimental. I want to change that, and to provide support for people who need it.

At that
time, I felt
like the
being on
the planet
and like I
At that time, I felt like the worst human being on the planet and like I deserved nothing.

You’re also very open about your own struggles with mental health and your battle with anorexia. When did you first realise you had a problem, and what made you want to get help?

I was around 18 when I knew I had a bad relationship with food. I guess my emotions were a little too overwhelming during that time and I decided that I needed to control something. I became very irritable, and soon after, became really obsessed with my diet. Everyone knew I had an eating disorder but I couldn’t come to terms with it. A year ago, I felt suicidal and decided to give the SOS helpline a call. I felt so comforted by that call that a few weeks after, I found myself in A&E, breaking down over my struggles with anorexia. I think what really motivated me to seek help was when I came to the realisation that I deserve happiness too. Or at least, peace of mind in the middle of the night.

For those who may have a loved one who’s struggling with mental health, what’s something that they can do that will really help?

Do your research and try to understand what that person is feeling or going through. Get to know the symptoms and what they would need during this time. Let them know that you will always be there, but give them the choice to reach out to you if they need to. Don’t force it down their throats. Let them make that choice for themselves when they’re ready. 

What would you say to those who are going through a similar struggle themselves right now?

I love you and everything that you are.

Text Sophie Hong Additional Reporting Karen Fong.