New firm sows hope for those coping with mental illness

Ms Ling (in red), and some employees of her new firm (from left) Ms Ching, Ms Tania Ahchak, 24, and Mr Mohammad Nurmahadi, 38.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

When Ms Melody Ching fills in job applications, she faces a dilemma when it comes to the question about chronic illnesses.

If the 34-year-old declares that she is recovering from bipolar disorder, which she was diagnosed with in her teens but is kept in check with medication, she might not be called up for an interview.

"Some friends don't declare, but this lands them in hot water because the employer doesn't understand and isn't prepared to help if they encounter difficulties," she said.

But earlier this year, the former teacher found a job doing research and administrative work at a landscaping enterprise that provides employment for people living with mental conditions.

Launched officially last Thursday, Life Builders and Landscapes is run by Ms Joyce Ling, 38, who is a certified counsellor and runs other businesses providing professional counselling for corporate clients as well as manpower staffing.

She sees this new business as a culmination of her work in both spheres over the past three years, during which she had tried to place beneficiaries of various voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) in jobs in the aviation industry.

"There are only so many employers willing to employ people living with mental afflictions... so I thought I should do something," she said.

She chose landscaping because several VWOs she visited were already starting eco-gardens and getting their beneficiaries to learn weeding and watering of plants.

"Working with plants, greenery and design is therapeutic for those recovering persons who are often uncomfortable around people," said the mother of two.

She will collaborate with VWOs to link up with their beneficiaries who would like to work. Psychological tests will be done beforehand to ensure they are able to work.

"Though they may not be the easiest people to work with due to the nature of their afflictions, I believe they make very sincere, loyal, dedicated and hardworking employees - qualities that are rare to find in Singapore nowadays," she said.

The company will help people with afflictions such as anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and clinical depression.

They will be supervised and accompanied by occupational therapists, and their numbers will likely be supplemented by foreign workers. Recruitment is not limited to people with mental conditions.

There are three members of the staff doing administrative work so far and Ms Ling is on the lookout for others with landscaping expertise.

One VWO she works with is Singapore Anglican Community Services (SACS), which has support programmes such as training and internships for people with mental health issues.

Mr Vincent Budihardjo, its head of social enterprises, said many employers are hesitant to hire these people because they are unsure of how to support them.

"Employees with mental health issues often experience stigma and discrimination from co-workers once their mental illness becomes known," he said.

Less than two-thirds of people placed in jobs by the Institute of Mental Health's Job Club - another employment service initiative - in the 2013 and 2014 financial years stayed in them for at least two months. The service makes around 270 job placements each year.

Ms Ching hopes to help others find opportunities through work, which she feels is "the best therapy". She added: "Having a responsibility in your life makes you better able to keep things under control."

This article was first published on Jun 20, 2016.
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