Was your religion the only source of comfort or did you seek professional help?
I’m not ashamed to say that I was and still am a patient at the Institute of Mental Health. To me, battling mental illness is the same as battling a physical illness: if you’re sick, you need medical help and there is no shame in seeking it. Generally, advice from friends or relatives can be well meaning, though clichéd. They will say things like ‘don’t worry, everything is going to be okay’. I knew that in order for me to come to terms with the loss of my mother, someone I was so close to and someone I respected deeply, I needed the help of professionals. Thankfully, I had amazing doctors whom I trusted deeply. At their behest, I wrote in a journal and kept to my medications. I think I can say that I’ve come out of my depression, although the pain of losing my mother will always be near. But it is now my life’s mission to remove the taboo and stigma associated with mental health illnesses.
My depression was compounded by the fact that I had a myriad of things to do, from being a caregiver to my father to juggling my schoolwork, and I couldn’t focus on getting better. My psychiatrist did in fact tell me to slow down and put myself first. It’s not that people who are depressed don’t know that, or that we don’t want to. But it’s easier said than done. I know of people with depression who have to bring up their kids. I myself am my family’s sole breadwinner. There are bills to pay. Not many of us can afford to take a one-month break to recharge. Not many bosses are willing to give their staff even a week to sort their problems out. There is a lot of talk about mental health awareness, but not enough action. Personally, I think the government can step in by providing financial aid for people who are undergoing mental health-related treatments. I know many people in similar plight who had to curtail their treatments — be they for physical or mental health —because of financial issues. When the individual need not worry about putting food on the table, he can take proper time to heal. Consider the consequences. Loss of productivity. Loss of lives due to suicide. Or people with mental health illnesses doing weird things. It’s a very real problem.
Did gardening help you to overcome your depression?
I’ve shared this with other gardeners, who also echo this sentiment. For some reason, when you’re gardening and getting your hands dirty, no matter what you’re going through, your worries just won’t cross your mind. You’re just so immersed in the activity for those two to three hours. When I was going through depression, I would feel upset whenever I was walking to the garden or returning home from it. But when I was in the midst of gardening, I was completely at peace. For two to three hours, my mind was resting. I think that helped.
Even for non-gardeners, I think that strolling in this garden or embracing nature can help prevent depression. It’s a respite from the stress that you face, which can come from work or even family. It’s your alone time. Just a thirty-minute walk frees your mind, so that you can tackle whatever challenges you are facing afresh.
As your late mother was an avid gardener herself, would you say that this garden is a tribute to her?
Not exactly. My mother’s dream was for me to pursue a PhD — all my peers know that I’m only doing it for my mother. I subscribe to the rather old-fashioned thinking that our parents’ dreams are just as important as our own, and we must abide by them. My parents are very important to me, and to me they are akin to God. Just the fact that I was admitted into the programme made my mother beam with pride. I feel that I’ve lived up to her expectations already. To be honest, after my mother passed away, the motivation to continue my PhD has dissipated. Even my father told me that the time was now to do what I want to do.
The garden’s for the community. It’s always been my dream to do something like this. I’ve been with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for ten years, as well as Meals on Wheels for about five. So this garden is a combination of two of my greatest passions: serving the community and nature.
But what I would say is that I do plant several of my mother’s and grandparents’ favourite flowers in the garden. One of my mother’s favourites was the Brunfelsia pauciflora, or the ‘yesterday, today, tomorrow’ flowering plant. It is so named as its shades change from white to light purple and dark purple. And when I see these flowers, I feel that they are still around me as well. Is there a more beautiful way to remember someone than to plant a tree or flower in his or her remembrance? You do so much good for both the ecosystem and for people.
You’ve sowed the seeds and are now enjoying the fruits of your labour. Is this the end point for Woodlands Botanical Garden?
Oh no, this is just the beginning. I hope to transform it into a safe avenue where Singaporeans and residents can come and unabashedly share their mental health struggles and traumas without fear of judgement.
Many people have been saying that this is a miracle project. But to keep this grassroot initiative going and to realise my vision for the garden, I need more support. My background is in chemistry, not psychology, so I hope that more allies can step forward to help champion mental wellness. Maybe in the future, this could be a meeting place where elderlies in the estate can interact with animals from different shelters. Or ex-convicts can come to share their stories with at-risk youths. The possibilities are endless.