With Gwendolyn Thong: Why Mental Health is Always the Starting Point

With Gwendolyn Thong: Why Mental Health is Always the Starting Point

Gwendolyn Thong is a mental health advocate, scholar and educator. She is the founder of The Chatty Caterpillar, a holistic Mental Wellness Management company and is a convener of the interministerial committee Youth Mental Well-Being Network . After teaching history at local schools over the last decade, she is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. 

11:29am – I pressed the blue ‘Join’ button, expecting to wait the full one minute, if not more for my 11:30 interview. Ms. Thong was already there. As she sat there ready with her notes, her commitment to the cause of mental health was constantly palpable across the hazy video quality.

If you only take away one thing from the host of advice offered by Gwendolyn, it should be this: 

“Ultimately, being a good person stems from having good mental health.” 

If we want to forge a generation of motivated, civic-minded individuals, we need to start by changing our approach to mental health. 

But what does it mean to have good mental health and where should we start? 

According to the World Health Organization, “Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

Good mental health is not just about the absence of a mental illness. 

That work needs to be done in Singapore is irrefutable. According to a 2017 study on mental health stigma amongst Singaporean youth, almost half of the interviewees associated the term ‘mental health’ with disparaging phrases. Almost a quarter of participants would want to hide the fact that they had a mentally ill relative. A 2012 review highlights that amongst the young demographic, the way to effectively normalize mental disorders is through education. 

Gwendolyn emphasised the same – for systemic change, we need to start with our schools. Schools are the cornerstone of our society: they determine the values, priorities and perspectives of our youth. Essentially, they hold the power to shape the future – for better or for worse. 

“Mental wellness cannot just be an add-on.” 

Mental health needs to become “a primary agenda” of schools. Sprinkling in a mental health seminar here and there after school is not enough to convince students – or anyone actually – that it is a priority. 

When it comes to promoting physical well-being, it seems that the resources of the school are infinite – we have physical education classes, anti-smoking and drug campaigns, sex education, mandatory vaccinations… yet, the mind is curiously neglected. 

There are both overt and covert ways to approach mental health. For instance, directly embedding relatable mental awareness classes into the core curriculum – ‘How to manage an unmanageable workload’, ‘How to handle increasing parental pressure’ – will provide students with practical advice as well as demonstrate the necessity of proactive mindfulness. Gwendolyn also advocates implementing “time-out sessions” that non-intrusively promote wellness. Music – for instance, daily choir singing, or outdoor activities like gardening were all recommended as “conduits through which mindfulness can be taught.”

Until students begin to think of mental health as an invaluable tool, they will continue to dismiss it as a factor irrelevant to achieving one’s goals. 

Teachers should be as much of a target as students when it comes to raising mental health awareness. Even if they do not help alleviate stress, at minimum, they should not be contributing to it. Just as we discourage comparison between students, educators need to recognize that the differences between students – in temperament, situation and skills – make fair comparison impossible, and more importantly unworthy of their time. 

According to Gwendolyn, we too often rely on the fact that “people (are) motivated by fear” to push students. While harsh practices such as arbitrarily penalizing students may induce them to work harder, they also have long-term detrimental impacts: “Our minds are more vulnerable than we think. Once… certain kinds of neural links have been created to respond only to the fear of failure, it is very hard to correct such thinking, even as we become adults.” 

In a survey, 78% of Singaporean students felt that failure in school would have long term impacts on their future plans. As a society, our sense of self-worth is inherently based on external factors that are constantly changing – whether this be grades,  jobs or economic status. Leaders and teachers need to instil the fact that “nobody can give, or take your self-worth away from you.” 

“The way you treat others is directly correlated to your own sense of wellbeing.” 

While we purport the belief that failure is the insurmountable obstacle to success, we also promote ruthless competition, convincing students that success can only be achieved at the expense of others. Case in point: during collaborative projects, students will often target the weakest link in the belief that the person is “pulling them down”. 

When learning environments are divisive, we adversely affect the fostering of effective leadership. 

Leadership is built on collaboration: it is about navigating relationships. “As a leader, your position is to set a standard…”, you help your team meet those standards through guidance and counselling. The majority of your time should be spent calibrating the efforts of those around you to ensure you reach your common goal. 

The Chatty Caterpillar, Gwendolyn’s holistic Mental Wellness Management company, is founded on the idea “that it is okay to be a Caterpillar even while others appear to be Butterflies”. She challenges the notion “that being stressed out is the only response to challenges in life”.

Please check out her inspiring work at chattycaterpillar.com

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