SINGAPORE - When Priya (not her real name) arrived in Singapore a little over a year ago with her husband, she did not fathom then how different her life was going to be compared to that in India.
In India, she held a well-paying job which she left to come to Singapore on a dependent's pass as her husband, who works in the IT sector, was transferred here.
The upheaval in her life, the change in environment and homesickness took a toll on her as days, weeks and then, slowly, months went by. Loneliness crept in and with that several other issues which she did not wish to share. It affected not only her marriage, but also her mental and emotional well-being.
"My husband was busy at work and I wasn't. There wasn't much for me to do and I did not have anyone to confide in here," she told tabla!.
"I was very troubled and I didn't want to burden my family back in India or my husband with my issues. I needed an impartial party to hear me out," added Priya.
She knew of Ramakrishna Mission here in Singapore and, one day about two months ago, she decided to look it up. That was when she chanced upon Wings Counselling Centre (WCC), a project by the mission that is co-funded by the National Council of Social Service, and made an appointment.
Set up in 1995, it helps people who face problems ranging from parenting to marriage and even stress-related concerns.
However, recently, it has seen an increasing number of Indian expatriates like Priya walking through its doors.
Said WCC director Hema Gurnani : "The main issues expatriates come to us with are related to relocation, stress and loneliness.
Back in India, they have a great support system with their families and friends and when they come here, that system is shaken."
Ms Gurnani, who has been involved in counselling and social work for 16 years and as director of the centre since 2007, added: "Many of them do try to socialise with others but it isn't the same as having a strong support system. They shy away from sharing their problems with others here because of socio-economic status or just to save face. So they don't seek help or brush the issues under the carpet."
Between 2010 and 2011, the centre saw a total of 141 cases, out of which 27 were expatriates.
The number of expatriates climbed to 36 the year after and then stood at 48 between April 2012 and March this year. More expats are coming to the centre due to its association with Ramakrishna Mission as well as word of mouth, said Ms Gurnani.
"Sometimes the issues are extra- marital affairs, where the husbands are holding senior management posts and are flying frequently. Other times they involve loss of identity, because some of these women used to hold high positions back in India and when they come here they deal with the housework and do not have meaningful social engagements," said Mr Lau Hon Shin, a counsellor at WCC.
But many times, Mr Lau added, these women just need a listening ear and would come in to talk about their problems to a stranger. And because of the strict confidentiality principle that the centre upholds, they are more willing to open up and share. Mr Lau also attends to some Indian expatriate clients but he added that the centre also has counsellors who speak Tamil, Hindi and Punjabi on site.
"But the clients we get are usually English educated, so there isn't a barrier to communication," said Mr Lau.
Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) support services manager Sheena Kanwar said while AWARE does get calls from women of all nationalities, she has noticed that in the past five years or so, a constant number of them are from Indian expatriate women. "The number is definitely more than what it was say, 10 years ago," she said.
Ms Kanwar also shared the five main services that AWARE has for women: The crisis helpline, face to face counselling, a free legal clinic, the Befrienders programme and the Sexual Assault Befrienders Service.
"AWARE is for all women regardless of ethnicity and residential status.
So we get many foreigners coming in seeking help, too," she explained, adding that AWARE has counsellors who speak in Hindi, Tamil and Punjabi to cater to the Indian expatriates who are not well versed in English. The Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA) too has a counselling service under its family service centre wing and according to one of its senior counsellors, Mrs Jagjit Kaur, the main issues raised to them by a rising number of expatriates include marital disputes and in some cases, even violence.
"We also have instances of foreign brides coming to us to seek help.
These women are either married to Indian professionals here or Singaporeans and face marriage conflicts, abuse or in need of financial assistance," explained Mrs Kaur.
She also shared that the centre runs several projects to help single Indian mothers who are from low-income households.
However, in some cases, Mrs Kaur added, the centre faces a dilemma in providing financial assistance.
Mrs Kaur said: "Many of these women are on the S-pass and so are not able to find employment. In other cases, some of them are not as qualified to get a job and when their husbands get incarcerated, they face a lot of difficulties. They won't want to go back to India for various reasons and so seek financial help. So the question that many centres ask themselves is, how long do we help them for? And besides financial help, how else can we assist to alleviate their situation?"
But Ms Gurnani noted that it isn't just the women who need help in adjusting to their new lives here. She added that men too are coming forward to seek help with their problems. And, more interestingly, she shared, WCC has more male expatriate clients than females.
Between 2011 and 2012, WCC took in 20 male expatriate clients and 16 females. Those numbers rose to 33 and 15 respectively for the period between April 2012 to March this year.
The problems that the males face are mostly related to work and readjusting to new environments. She sees quite a number working in the IT and banking sectors here in Singapore and many of them hold senior positions in their companies.
"They aren't able to cope with the change or are not able to mix with the people in their companies and so they become reserved and this affects their job performance. They are here with a mindset to make it. And when their work is affected, they become stressed, and other issues follow. If they are married, this could lead to turbulence in the relationship," explained Ms Gurnani.
Mr Lau added that in many cases, those seeking help, regardless of gender, do not realise the cause of their problems and it is only after several counselling sessions that they are able to identify and work on the root issues.
"They call us and say they're stressed or having panic attacks. We get them to come in and we assess their situations. That's when we are able to identify the main triggers of their predicaments," he said.
However, he noted that people seeking help should not see counselling as an end-all solution to their problem.
"What we counsellors do, especially in the case of expatriates settling in a new place, is to see how they can bridge that gap to integrate here. We guide them to see how they can fit in or at least lessen that gap and manage their day to day activities," said Mr Lau.
And once the triggers have been identified, management strategies are put in place and the clients are able to manage on their own, then with their consent, the counselling sessions are wrapped up.
"Should the old problems surface again or newer ones arise, then they come in again. We don't do follow-ups because we do not want to create dependency issues," explained Ms Gurnani.
"But people, in general, should seek professional help such as counselling if they find that they are unable to cope with certain concerns. Do not push the matters aside because they can affect the other aspects of your lives. Counselling isn't something to be ashamed about and it's purely confidential, so there isn't a need to worry about your problems being aired for others to see," she added.
As for Priya, she found her confidence again after visiting the counsellors at WCC. And she's looking forward to building her life here in Singapore.
"One shouldn't be shy to seek help. This concerns your mental health. Just like how you see a doctor for a cold, you need that same kind of professional help for your mental and emotional aspects.
"I'm happier now. I have opened up more and I feel more positive about life," she said.
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