Serving up skills to ex-mental patients

Photo above: Bizlink Centre Singapore senior manager Rebecca Tan (left) and Dr Tan watch as Madam Halimah gets coffee from a recovering patient.

SINGAPORE - Whenever orders piled up at the bistro which schizophrenic patient Bernard Tan (not his real name) used to work at, he would tense up and call his therapist.

The 50-year-old eventually resigned as his distress became too overwhelming.

Patients like Mr Tan can now learn to reintegrate into society by working at the Bizlink Cafe, which was opened yesterday to help patients recovering from mental illness.

Occupational therapists are on hand to help them manage their symptoms and brush up on their social skills before looking for employment in the open market.

Located at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), it was launched yesterday by Minister of State for Social and Family Development Halimah Yacob - who becomes Speaker of Parliament on Monday.

She said employment opportunities for this group of people remain "very limited" and urged more employers to hire them. Madam Halimah said: "With employment, their recovery process will be faster. Without a job and a stable income, their sense of self-worth will be affected."

During their three- to six-month stint at the cafe, patients will learn customer service and kitchen skills while receiving an allowance. When the therapists assess that patients are ready for external employment, IMH will help them to find a job.

Bizlink Cafe is a collaboration between IMH and Bizlink Centre Singapore, a non-profit organisation providing employment services to the disadvantaged.

Four patients have since started their training in the cafe. IMH hopes to train 35 people a year on the programme. It also has a retail shop and a cleaning vendor on its grounds for patients to work in.

"Vocational training aims to help patients change from being a passive recipient of health-care services to an active contributing member of the society," said Associate Professor Chua Hong Choon, IMH's chief executive.

"Such changes are best enabled through collaborations with external organisations which provide real-life environments in which patients can be socialised to help them realise their potential."

Mr Tan, who has been picking up food preparation skills at the cafe since last September, said: "I am more confident now but whenever I get anxious, it helps that I can see my therapist face to face when they come by."

BizLink Cafe is located at the IMH main lobby and operates Mondays to Fridays, from 7am to 4pm and on Saturdays from 7am to 1pm.

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