Desmond Ng was 18 and a second-year polytechnic student when he began hearing voices in his head, especially around people in school.
"I would get this feeling of fear and paranoia around them and hear a voice telling me that other people were trying to hurt me, and that I should retaliate before they do," said Mr Ng, now 22.
He thought the voices stemmed from his thoughts and feelings, and did not dwell on them until he felt increasingly stressed. Six months later, he sought help from his tutor and was referred to a counsellor.
"That was when I got to know more about psychosis and schizophrenia, and realised the voices might not be my own thoughts," he said.
Psychosis refers to a group of mental disorders, including schizophrenia. Those with the illness can experience hallucinations or delusions, or display abnormal behaviour.
Mr Ng's counsellor suggested he go to Chat Hub, a centre at *Scape that offers free mental health assessments for youth. There, he was referred to the Early Psychosis Intervention Programme (EPIP) at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).
But his parents did not initially accept the diagnosis and believed he was possessed by spirits. "They took me to a medium a few times to see if anything worked," he said.
He and his parents had a lot of arguments over how to deal with his episodes. But multi-family group sessions helped them accept his illness after three years.
The sessions were held once a month by the EPIP. Five to six families gather to discuss patients' symptoms and coping strategies used by patients and parents.
While speaking to a therapist and taking medication helped alleviate the symptoms of his illness, it was meeting his peers at EPIP that really paved Mr Ng's way to recovery.
He was reluctant to interact with people initially but was persuaded not only to do so, but to also join activities like sports. He said that meeting those who got better and "hearing their stories and struggles really drives me to think that I can do this".
He met a "peer support specialist" at a workshop and thought about becoming one himself. Such specialists can be recovering patients or caregivers of recovering patients.
"They showed me that they could use their stories to inspire others, help others, and learn more about themselves in the process."
While Mr Ng still hears voices and goes for occasional follow-ups with his doctor and psychotherapist, the condition does not bother him as much now. He works part-time at EPIP as a peer support specialist to facilitate activity groups that explore each person's strengths and remind patients that there are ways to cope with the illness.
Mr Ng hopes more patients will share their stories. "Right now, there's a stigma around... talking about mental illnesses, so hopefully we might have people seeing that it's okay to talk about it."
Keeping a lookout for the distressed
The Early Psychosis Intervention Programme (EPIP) had just 120 new clients in its first financial year in 2001, but this has since grown to 270 for its latest financial year of 2015.
The rise was due to outreach programmes and other initiatives, said Assistant Professor Sujatha Rao, chief and senior consultant at EPIP at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).
She said training provided to the institutes of higher learning, voluntary welfare groups, school counsellors and community partners has helped them keep a lookout for people who are distressed, and might benefit in seeking help early.
The Community Health Assessment Team (Chat), an outreach arm of EPIP, focuses on detecting the symptoms of distress and risk through a free mental health check service for youth aged 16 to 30.
Trained counsellors provide strictly confidential and free consultations at their centre, Chat Hub, in *Scape. It does not provide treatment but will make referrals to restructured hospitals and family service centres.
This article was first published on September 30, 2016.
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