Prioritising mental health

13 July 2017 | Education
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Yi Feng is passionate about issues related to mental wellness

Khoo Yi Feng, who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts with Honours (Distinction) from NUS Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) on 10 July, is a man with a mission — to achieve mental wellness for all Southeast Asians.

“I am consistently curious about why people do the things they do,” he said. This curiosity led him to take up a minor in Psychology. Believing that knowledge is contextual, he chose to major in Southeast Asian Studies as he felt that it would provide an invaluable appreciation of social issues from multidisciplinary angles as well as opportunities to conduct ethnographic research within the region in their native language. Over time, his focus settled on mental health in Southeast Asia.

The affable young man shared that talking about mental health is particularly relevant in Singapore’s high-pressured environment. “There is no health without mental health. Given that mental issues affect us all, I see the relevance of talking about it,” he declared. The tireless volunteer has dedicated himself to giving back to the community through skills-based volunteering, delivering training in communication, facilitating workshops and offering pro bono consulting. For the past five years, he has served as a facilitator of a support group for persons recovering from mental illness. Their resilience has greatly inspired him and encouraged him to challenge stereotypes and kick-start conversations on mental health.

In 2014, as a Fellow with the Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Programme at NUS, Yi Feng founded and led the Mental Health Wing of the Marginalised Communities Hub. Speaking of the impetus for the group’s formation, he said, “I founded the Mental Health Wing as an interest group to challenge stereotypes through open and honest dialogues as well as raise the capacity of undergraduates who are interested to learn more and provide peer support.”

Two years on, the committee of 10 like-minded individuals, headed by Yi Feng, mobilised 16 partners, including Singapore Association for Mental Health, Institute of Mental Health and Health Promotion Board, and embarked on a year-long campaign. The initiative, which involved a series of six dialogue sessions, two training sessions and two engagement sessions, reached out to some 250 undergraduates and received positive feedback.

There is no health without mental health. Given that mental issues affect us all, I see the relevance of talking about it.

In the second half of 2015, Yi Feng participated in a three-month Semester-in-SEAsian Exchange Programme to Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where he served at the Centre for Indigenous and Cultural Psychology of UGM as a Mental Health Research Intern, shadowed nurses in the Community Mental Health Team at Mental Health Hospital Grhasia, and volunteered with a community support group for caregivers of and persons diagnosed with schizophrenia.

The overseas stint resulted in the research paper “Gila? Perceptions of young Indonesians living in Yogyakarta towards persons with mental illnesses”, which he presented to academics, policymakers and community mental health professionals in Yogyakarta, and to academics from NUS Southeast Asian Studies upon his return to Singapore.


Yi Feng presented a research paper to academics, policymakers and community mental health professionals in Yogyakarta

In December 2015, Yi Feng also presented a paper titled “From Victims to Victors: Learning Psychological Resilience from Khmer Survivors” at the International World Peace Conference in Yogyakarta. His paper, which examined the coping strategies of Khmer Rouge survivors, garnered him two awards at the conference — Best Paper and Best Presentation.

A recipient of both the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and Kernial Singh Sandhu Prizes, Yi Feng feels that the NUS education has transformed him. The theories and class discussions helped him to make sense of everyday phenomena and equipped him with critical lenses through which he could process human behaviour, he said.

Currently, Yi Feng is facilitating a monthly support group for persons recovering from anxiety and depression, and aspires to become a social service leader. He is already missing NUS, in particular, the “spontaneous kopi chats with my professors, mentors, seniors, peers and juniors at the Deck on political and social issues that matter to us all”.