While their peers may prefer to spend their weekend mornings sleeping in or heading to brunch at the latest hipster cafes, Hannie Ching and Yong Yong Qing are up bright and early to make their way to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).
Neither are there to see a doctor, but what they do have is a date with the patients who reside in IMH’s wards. And if you’re expecting violent outbursts and straitjackets, these girls will challenge you to change your perspective. Most of the patients are in high spirits when the volunteers arrive, while the few who feel moody may simply choose to sit quietly in a corner by themselves.
As leaders of youth volunteer group Matchsticks, the duo spend two hours every Saturday bringing smiles to the patients, by chatting with them, doing art-and-craft activities and playing board games with them. For many of these patients who don’t have much to keep themselves occupied, the company of these volunteers is a ray of sunshine to an often dreary reality.
“It relieves the mundane routine that they have in the ward. Previously, they would only do colouring activities. When we were not there, they were colouring. When we were there, they were also colouring,” explained 20-year-old Yong, who has been with Matchsticks for more than a year.
Determined to keep things fresh for the patients, the spunky volunteers have introduced different types of crafting activities to the elderly patients, from folding paper flowers to making sand art and felt sushi. Their latest project? Using pipe cleaners to create flowers.
More than just teaching them art, these sessions help the patients to open up to the volunteers, and sow the seeds of friendship. Ching, 19, who joined the group one and a half years ago, told The Pride: “For new volunteers who come in at the start, it might be quite difficult to start talking to the patients. With these activities, it’s a way for the volunteers to approach them.”
Friendship, or any connection to people from beyond IMH’s wards, doesn’t come easily for many of these patients. As long-stay patients, some of them have stayed in IMH for more than 20 years, and many have lost touch with friends and seen their visitors dwindle in numbers.
Hence, volunteers play an important role in bridging the gap with the community outside, bringing some semblance of a normal life to the patients. The activities keep them engaged and motivates them as they now have friends to meet and fun activities to look forward to.
Catherine Chua, volunteer programme manager at IMH, noted that the volunteers bring much joy to the patients. She said: “Such interaction with our volunteers helps to improve our patients’ mental well-being, improves their social and communication skills, and raises their self-esteem. We have observed that our patients are more cheerful and motivated to participate in daily ward activities.”
First started three years ago, Matchsticks now has some 190 volunteers helping out with its initiatives. Many of them are full-time national servicemen and students who come from numerous polytechnics, junior colleges and universities. They are youths from all walks of life, united by a common desire to bring some sunshine to the lives of IMH patients.
Besides the weekly activities, the group also holds events for the patients on major public holidays. They hold performances, provide refreshments and conduct a carnival where they set up game booths and an arts and crafts booth. This Christmas, they are even thinking of doing some carolling.
Ching said: “The patients are very excited to attend such events because they’re usually stuck inside the ward. They’re laughing, enjoying themselves, participating in the activities and they even sing and dance along with us.”
It’s not always easy to get them into the spirit of these performances though, Ching revealed. At a karaoke session they once organised, the patients were reluctant to take part, so to get the ball rolling, she stepped into the spotlight even though she was shy and couldn’t sing.
“I embarrassed myself and the patients started laughing but eventually, they started singing together. Despite the embarrassment, I felt like it was worth it when I saw their smiles. It’s very rewarding when I see that they join in and enjoy it,” said Ching.
For Yong, it’s these heartwarming moments, along with the friendships she’s made with the patients, that keep her coming back each week. Describing one of the patients who treats her like a daughter, Yong said: “Even though we see each other just once a week, she’ll always ask about my day and whether my studies are going well. During Chinese New Year, she’ll pass me an empty red packet as a symbol of her blessing for my family and me.”
She observed: “They don’t have a lot but they’re so willing to share with you. It’s very heartwarming”.
This experience has even led Yong to re-examine her relationship with her family. Admitting to a tendency to neglect her family when she gets busy, she said: “If I’m able to spend so much time with these patients and treat them like my family, then what about my own family? Have I been treating them the same way I’ve been treating these patients – with enough patience and care?”
While Matchsticks hopes to recruit more regular volunteers so they can adopt more wards, their outreach programmes at universities have been met with a lukewarm response.
Ching acknowledged that mental illness is a sensitive topic, and it’s hard to get people talking about it. Apathy is another key obstacle because it’s difficult to get people to care if they don’t know anyone close to them who suffers from it.
Despite these challenges, Yong feels encouraged that since March last year, their regular volunteers for Saturday sessions have doubled to a total of 40. This has allowed them to adopt three more wards, bringing their volunteers’ outreach to five wards.
Ward volunteer leader Leah Yang, 19, felt that working with Matchsticks has inspired her to help alleviate the social stigma faced by mental patients.
She told The Pride: “My motivation also comes from the patients and our friendships. I think many of them feel lonely and it worsens their condition. When we visit every week, it makes them happier.”