'Reason I wake up every day is to help'

Photo: The New Paper

Four months after he started work as a counsellor manning an addiction helpline, he got a call from an alcoholic.

The caller's marriage was on the rocks due to his addiction and his family had given up on him.

Mr Syawal Hussain convinced the caller to get help despite his claim that he could manage his addiction.

When Mr Syawal, 28, attended a meeting for alcoholics a month later, a man stood up and gave him a hug. He was the caller and thanked the counsellor for helping him.

Mr Syawal, who has a diploma in psychology, has been a para-counsellor at the Institute of Mental Health's (IMH) All Addictions Helpline and National Problem Gambling Helpline since 2011.

He handles up to 30 calls a day.

He read articles and books on the different types of addictions, shadowed a senior para-counsellor and role-played on how to handle different situations.

Mr Syawal said: "It was challenging because what the guy shared was a lot to take in.

"He said his drinking problem had got so bad it had affected his marriage and made his family give up on him.

"I was able to help him realise he needed help and that he couldn't overcome his addiction alone."

To learn more about addictions, Mr Syawal attended an IMH alcohol addiction meeting a month later.

When the session's counsellor introduced him, a man suddenly walked over and gave him a hug, which shocked Mr Syawal.

The man said he was the caller.


Mr Syawal said: "When he told me his name, I immediately recognised him. I was so happy.

"To this day, that's the reason I wake up every day to go to work - the chance to help people like him."

In over more than three years as a para-counsellor, Mr Syawal has handled challenging cases.

Recently, he received a call from a mother whose son had a video gaming addiction. When her husband disciplined him, the son left home.

"The mother felt she had no one to turn to and that she was alone in handling this case," said Mr Syawal who counselled her and offered her resources for professional help.

Two weeks later, she called again to thank him, saying he had motivated her to make things work for her family.

"I was happy she took my advice and sought help," said Mr Syawal, adding that the key in dealing with hysterical callers is to refrain from questioning them.

"Instead, I try to be reflective and make statements about their situations. Sometimes, they start talking.

"It's important to empathise with them and show that we are here and listening and that they are not alone."

She doesn't give up on callers

On a late night in March, a woman called Institute of Mental Health (IMH) helpline counsellor Diana Kang and said she wanted to commit suicide.

After giving an address, the caller hung up.

Ms Kang, 26, called the authorities and found out from the IMH database that the caller was one of its patients. Even though the address she gave was false, the woman was tracked down and brought in for treatment.

Ms Kang has worked for IMH's Mental Health Helpline for more than a year. Her job is to answer queries about mental health and advise patients' relatives on how to care for them.

One of her most challenging assignments was that call in March.

She said: "The caller didn't want to share much but she sounded really serious about it.

"She gave me an address and hung up on me before I had a chance to say more. I tried to think about how best to help her. Her safety was my primary priority."

In cases where the caller is suicidal or hysterical, Ms Kang said she tries to get the caller's name and NRIC number to see if she can find information on the IMH system.

"If the called can't provide me the information, I ask if there is anyone else I can speak to," she said.

If Ms Kang, who receives 15 to 35 calls each shift from patients as well as their relatives and the public, meets a dead end, she tried to calm the caller down by doing deep breathing exercises or by distraction.

The psychology graduate received a month of training where she shadowed a senior counsellor and listened to how cases were handled. The senior counsellor would debrief her on the case after each call.

Typical calls are from relatives of a patient who has stopped taking medication or members of the public who are concerned about someone.


A family service centre (FSC) once called about a woman who thought her neighbours were out to get her and that she felt heat waves coming out of her alarm system and television set.

"She thought the heat waves were so strong, they would burn her. She hid under a table to get away," said Ms Kang.

Working with the FSC and other agencies, the counsellors were able to bring the woman in for psychiatric evaluation.

"Manning the helpline gives me the opportunity to do more than just listen to those in distress. I feel motivated seeing how the simple act of being there for them makes a difference in patients' lives," added Ms Kang.

Samaritans of Singapore (SOS):1800-2214444
Singapore Association for Mental Health:1800-2837019
Sage Counselling Centre:1800-5555555
Care Corner Mandarin Counselling:1800-3535800

This article was first published on July 20, 2015.
Get The New Paper for more stories.