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Healthcare professionals heal others, but they are human too. They have their personal challenges, and need rest and recuperation as well.
In October 2017, then 24-year-old Sean Ng was facing anxiety and burnout. As a junior doctor, he faced long working hours and overnight shifts. It was difficult to eat and sleep, he recalls.
“I thought I was alone, but when I talked to my peers, I found out we had similar experiences. Having mental health issues is one thing, but doctors having mental health issues is like a double whammy.”
Like most male Singaporean trainee doctors, Sean had deferred his National Service (NS) to study medicine. After he graduated from National University of Singapore (NUS), he returned to the Singapore Armed Forces to complete his NS as a medical officer.
Set to ORD in December, the 29-year-old will join Institute of Mental Health (IMH) as a resident trainee doctor.
Supporting others with similar struggles
While serving NS, Sean met Keith, 27, a fellow doctor who will move to the public healthcare sector after he completes his military duties.
When they started talking, they realised that they were both facing a tough time navigating their respective careers. Sharing about their struggles, they found out that many others had similar issues.
Keith tells The Pride: “It was an eye-opener. We reached out to those around us and found out it was prevalent, which was reassuring that we were not alone, but also not reassuring because it’s quite a number of affected individuals.”
So, Sean, Keith and another friend, Zi Ying, a medical officer in a nursing home, founded a peer support group specifically for medical students and junior doctors.
As they found themselves in a good place on the road to recovery, they created the platform to support others facing similar struggles.
Both Sean and Keith noted that it wasn’t just related to serving NS. Many of their peers struggle with the transition from academic semesters to on-the-job training.
Explains Sean: “The struggle starts when we get into clinicals, the stress gets on, we all get immersed in hospital culture.”
How it works
The key, Sean explains to The Pride, is to make it easy for medical students and professionals to seek help. Through a simple Google form, individuals can voice their needs and concerns discreetly. Everything is kept anonymous.
After they fill up the form, the peer gets linked with a peer supporter, who will meet with them in person or talk over messaging platforms.
Keith emphasises that the supporter’s role is to provide advice or support based on their lived experiences – they are not trained counsellors. If they find that they are starting to take on the role of a counsellor or therapist, these supporters may recommend the peer to seek professional help.
Sean adds that the casual approach has been successful: Peers have told him that the support group is helpful as they are unsure of where to turn to for help.
Since the trio started the peer support group in 2021, there have been about 40 peers who have signed up for these one-on-one sessions. The group has more than 10 peer supporters on roster.
Keith says that more had reached out, but they had to turn them away because they didn’t want to overwhelm the supporters.
Sean hopes to grow the movement and increase the numbers of supporters and peers alike.
However, to have these peers share wholeheartedly and without reservation does not come easy.
“Doctors do not want others to think they have mental wellness issues”
One of the most common questions the supporters get is: “If I declare my psychiatric condition, what will happen to my medical licence?”
Understandably, these junior medical practitioners are afraid that admitting to having a mental wellness issue would affect their medical career.
There is little public clarity on how medical practitioners are assessed on their fitness to practise medicine, so most keep mum about their conditions or put off seeking help entirely simply out of fear of the impact on their careers.
It takes time to build up trust and rapport between a peer and their supporter.
Keith says: “Sharing about their journey really helps. They feel understood and not alone. They open up.”
Peers are matched with supporters at a similar level of experience so that these supporters can get them to talk by sharing their own stories.
Keith emphasises that anonymity is maintained, and the supporters often reassure those who reach out that their identities are protected. The peer support group is not affiliated with Ministry of Health (MOH) or National University Hospital (NUH) and does not share any personal data with other organisations.
27-year-old “Aaron” (not his real name) was demoralised, emotionally detached and drifting through his houseman year — the first year as a doctor after graduating from med school. Affected by the long hours, hectic pace of work and the things he saw in the hospital, he began questioning his decision to practise medicine.
He tells The Pride: “I kept asking myself, “was this the kind of lifestyle I wanted?’”
Then he received a mass email sent by the support group, asking him if he had any questions or concerns he had as a junior doctor, and to fill up the form if he did.
He was intrigued and responded; later he was paired with Sean for seven months. The duo mostly chatted over WhatsApp.
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Says Aaron: “Speaking with Sean made me feel more grounded. I didn’t feel alone and felt more reassured about what I really wanted to do. He helped to keep me aware that there were other things besides the day-to-day grind.”
After a few months, Aaron mustered up the courage to leave the environment that was taxing his mental health and pursue what really spoke to him. He was empowered by the support and knowledge Sean had provided and moved forward with his goals and plans.
He says: “In this world where everyone is busy trying to keep their head above the water, it is very inspiring to know that (Sean and the others) are trying to help others.”
Aaron now works in a GP clinic and is in a much improved mental and emotional state.
Finding a support system
Sean admits that his personal journey was not easy.
When he was dealing with burnout, he was grateful for the people around him – his family and friends.
Apart from people, Sean turns to music as an outlet.
“Music and medicine are complimentary. Medicine can touch people in a way music cannot, and vice versa,” explains Sean.
As a doctor and musician, Sean says that music helps him stay in touch with his emotions. That in turn allows him to be more sensitive towards the emotional needs of his patients.
As for the link between the science of medicine and the art of music, Sean says that he always looks at the common ground of the two fields: The healing and comfort they bring.
As part of NCSS and TOUCH Community Services’ Beyond The Label campaign this year, Sean released a music video for a song he wrote titled ‘Cross Your Ts’. Featuring two BTL ambassadors, the song references psychiatric conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia, anxiety and more.
Says Sean: “The main messages are the importance of community and the relationships we have with the people around us, seeking help, and supporting your loved ones.”
Raising awareness about medical burnout
Sean also hopes for others to do their part to raise awareness and destigmatise mental health issues.
One simple way is simply being present.
Says Sean: “Accompany them on visits to the psychiatrist, especially the first one. It can be intimidating for them.”
Be more courteous and understanding towards medical workers, especially as many face burnout, adds Sean.
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Aaron says: “Take it step by step. There’s nothing that will really destroy your spirit and progress in life, except yourself. Don’t be afraid to do what’s necessary for your health and the people you care about.”
It is important to put yourself first before looking to help others.
Keith says: “If the mind suffers, you suffer. Without that mental peace, there is no health.”
For more information, visit the Medical Peer Support site here.