Top Image: Jenny Teo with her late son Josh, when he was 13.
“If we had this conversation two years ago, I would be bawling my eyes out now,” confessed Jenny Teo as we spoke about her festive plans for this year. Jenny lost her only son to suicide three years ago.
“This time brings back a lot of memories.”
Before Christmas of 2017, she discovered that her son Josh was struggling with depression. A few months later, right after Chinese New Year of 2018, her son attempted to take his life for the first time.
Still, it wasn’t until June of that year that the worst scenario imaginable played out. One morning, Jenny opened the door to her study to find her son lying motionless on a sofa with a plastic bag over his head. Her world came crashing down.
For years, every December would remind her of the first time she found out about Josh’s depression, and every Chinese New Year of his first attempt. But the festive season was difficult for Jenny before the loss of her son too. She suffered from clinical depression for two years after an aggressive divorce in 2015.
“When you are depressed, you don’t feel positive emotions. You are numb to the joy and celebration. You don’t even want to put up the Christmas tree,” Jenny recalled. “And when you see people celebrating, singing carols, feasting, having fun, and laughing, you can’t identify with yourself.”
“You don’t want to join in because you don’t feel it, which exacerbates the feeling of isolation even more. And when people invite you, you say no. Then they keep a distance from you, making you feel even more isolated.”
Festivities: A double-edged sword
“The festive period can be both relieving and stressful,” explained Asher, the founder of Limitless Singapore.
Limitless SG aims to end powerlessness in youths caused by poverty, mental illness, & social inequality. Through outreach programs, talks, and therapy services, volunteers uplift young individuals by helping them find their potential and overcome mental health struggles.
He explained that for young people who struggle because of stresses arising from school and work, the holidays come as a relief and give them a chance to reconnect with their loved ones.
“But if someone is struggling with mental illness, and one of their symptoms is social isolation, it could worsen.”
This is where Asher reminds me that there is a difference between mental illness and poor mental health, the latter of which can find relief in the holiday season more seamlessly, depending on the issue at hand.
Most people will likely face mental health struggles at some point in their life. And in these moments, the holidays can relieve or exacerbate your mental health, depending on the environment you surround yourself with.
Buena, a 20-year-old volunteer at The Tapestry Project, said that for her, the holiday season is “suffocating.”
The Tapestry Project SG is an independent, not-for-profit online publication that champions first-person mental health stories to build a more empathetic and inclusive Singapore. Their stories are written by, and are for persons who are touched by the realities of mental health challenges.
“My parents don’t really get along, and it’s worse for me during the holiday season because there is no way to escape that environment,” she shared. “I’m just stuck with people who are together but don’t want to be around each other.”
Even if your family is not necessarily toxic, i’d argue that the pressures of seeing multiple relatives at once after a long time can put an unhealthy amount of pressure on many individuals.
Especially when you are young and still finding your footing in life, the bombardment of questions and expectations to meet can easily turn stressful.
I particularly remember the anxieties filled flights home for Christmas after university, in which I would mentally rehearse answers for questions about my career and job prospects. Even worse, those about relationships.
Toxic gratitude is real
The holidays are all about gratitude—being thankful for all that you have and being grateful for the presence of your loved ones. This is hard to keep in mind when your headspace is running free with anxious thoughts, or worse, complete numbness.
“There’s this pressure to be festive and feel happy,” Buena shared. “When I see friends who are alone and can’t spend Christmas with their families, I feel bad for complaining. I can usually travel to the Philippines to be with all my family for the holidays.”
“I feel like that’s a privilege I’m not appreciating because not everybody gets the chance to spend Christmas with their family like this, and I do.”
As Buena said that, I chimed in to say that one of the worst things anyone could tell an individual struggling with their mental health is to ‘snap out of it’ and ‘just be happy’ for everything they have.
For years, I too would feel torn when friends would tell me how lucky I was to be able to spend Christmas in Italy with my extended family. How could I tell them it wasn’t going to play out à la Roman Holiday, but more like a dramatic telenoval instead?
“On the outside, my family looks very healthy,” Buena added. “I talk to my parents regularly, and we all travel and go out for dinner together often. This is what a privileged life supposedly looks like. But when these things don’t necessarily make you feel happy, you start questioning if you are the problem instead.”
Nicole, the founder of the Tapestry Project, added that this is similar to the pressures faced by some to rest and recover over the festive period. I nodded in agreement when she said that, interrupting her to share how frustrating it can feel to come back from leave feeling barely more rested than when you started it.
“It’s like when companies say self-care is important but don’t let you take leave or a sabbatical,” she smirked. “Instead, they send you for a yoga class or mindfulness session and expect you to be ace.”
Buena told me about a company where her friend works that gave all employees a set mental health day, forcing them to reschedule their tasks for that day.
“Like, let me reschedule my mental breakdown and therapy to that day,” I joked.
“Instead of asking the employees what they needed, the organisation decided for them.”
Breaking the stigma
“When I lost my child, I couldn’t stop talking about him, and I just wanted to mention his name again and again,” Jenny shared. “Yet, it was so difficult. Even among close family, a mention of my son’s name could stop the conversation.”
“Although he’s no longer with me, I still want to talk about my child. But for others, it’s taboo. People are uncomfortable talking about death.”
When conducting talks at schools about mental health, Asher also faced similar backlash. He brought up how, on multiple occasions, he was asked by the schools not to bring up suicide.
“The thing about suicide is that it is the number one killer of young people in Singapore,” he shared. “And statistics show that suicide should be the number one worldwide by now.”
“The research shows that the more we talk about suicide, especially with people contemplating it, the lower their chances of taking their lives are. There’s a correlation between talking about suicide and lower instances of actually completing suicide. The reason is that by talking about it, we allow them to talk about why they want to take their life.”
It could be crucial to have these conversations before the festive period, when students may be worried about exam results or the next school year.
“I would tell students not to be alone and not to isolate themselves,” Asher said.
“Allow people to reach out to you during this holiday period. Especially if you feel like you don’t want to be around people, give it a chance because you never know. You might just find someone to support you or a community that can change your life.”
While igniting important conversations around mental health is the first step, they should be used to inform sustainable structural and societal changes. Increasing funding, both by the government and fundraised, into organisations and institutions that support mental health causes is one way to spark this. For example, The Majurity Trust has tapped into its network of donors to pledge over one million dollars to various causes spanning from youth mental health to support vulnerable communities with its Shine A Light campaign.
Jenny managed to come out of clinical depression in 2017. And again now, she is picking herself back up and finding the joy and purpose in life since her son’s passing.
“The holiday season is not easy. I’m divorced and I’ve lost my only child. But there’s a thing called post-traumatic growth, where your perspective changes and you don’t focus as much on the death, but on celebrating the life you lost,” Jenny explained.
Over the past years, Jenny founded Stigma2Strength Singapore to reduce the stigma surrounding the topic of suicide in Singapore. She has found purpose in sharing Josh’s story and helping prevent others from taking their life.
“I didn’t want my son’s death to be in vain, so I started Stigma2Strength Singapore. It allows me to do public outreach based on lived experiences with suicide, as well as share facts from suicidology.”
Jenny was adamant about sharing that just because someone has lost the will to celebrate, it doesn’t mean it will always be that way.
“When I was depressed, I didn’t want to put up a Christmas tree. Now, not only did I do that, but I also put up a nativity set, and lights across my home”
“Most importantly, I enjoy the ambience, and I’m happy.”