A conversation with Christine Wong, Executive Director of Samaritans of Singapore

31 July 2018 - interviews

Executive Director of Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), Christine Wong, believes that heart and a genuine care for others is the secret sauce to working in the social service sector. In pursuit of a meaningful life, she has dedicated the past 10 years to working with people struggling with mental health issues at SOS. We’ve had the pleasure of working with Christine and the SOS team on the “How are you today?” campaign. We chat to Christine about her hopes for the future, her inspirations, and the conversation around mental health in Singapore.

Samaritans of Singapore is a crisis intervention and suicide prevention non-profit organisation. SOS provides confidential emotional support to individuals facing a crisis, thinking about suicide, or affected by suicide. If you believe that someone you know may be at risk, write to pat@sos.org.sg or call their 24-hour hotline at 1800-221-4444.

The Mindful Company (TMC): What inspired you to join the voluntary welfare organisation (VWO) sector?

Christine Wong (CW): I lost my mother when I was about 11 years old and struggled to cope with the notion of having to grow up quickly and take on the responsibility of looking after my two younger siblings, especially my youngest brother who, at the time, was two years old. I grew up facing financial issues as my father was the only breadwinner for my grandparents and four young children. I became the “mother” for my family. When I grew up, I felt I needed to do something meaningful in life so I decided to join the sector – the first one working with people struggling with mental health issues.

TMC: How long have you been with SOS and what’s been your most memorable moment to date?

CW: I have been here for 10 years and 2 months. Being a mother of two boys, my memorable moment was when I connected with an 18-year-old survivor who lost his mother to suicide. I could sense the pain he was going through and empathized fully.

TMC: We typically find that the community has misconceptions about mental health. As a society, we spend a lot of time looking after our physical health, but forget that each of us should look after our mental wellbeing too. Is this a common misconception that you encounter in your work?

CW: As mental health issues are not as visible as physical health issues; we find that many people are less informed or educated about the importance of achieving and maintaining good mental wellness. Therefore, misconceptions arise, especially when people only see the negative physical symptoms surfacing from mental health issues, such as an unkempt physical appearance, hearing of “voices” or “seeing things”. These misconceptions are made worse when the press highlights these incidents - which only make up a small percentage.

I define good mental health as having self-awareness through the ups and downs of life; the resilience to cope yet knowing when and where to seek help; and the ability to face it all with a positive attitude despite its challenges. It’s about learning to accept the light with the darkness. It’s also important to have a good circle of friends and family members to turn to for support.

TMC: How has the conversation around mental health in Singapore changed over the years and what are your hopes for the future?

CW: Now there’s more educational programmes and support from the community and corporate partners. I am pleased to witness younger people being better informed about mental health, and accepting and embracing those facing it. Increasingly we’re seeing individuals who are experiencing mental health issues having the courage to speak up. They’re sharing their journeys of hope, and training to be “Peers” to support others facing similar issues.

TMC: How can people help to further the conversation around mental health?

CW: Listen and support those who may be experiencing mental health issues.

TMC: What advice would you give to the younger generation who would like to pursue a career in the social service sector?

CW: It is not a bed of roses, but the rewards are “threefold” when you witness the transformation of a person, see them live a meaningful life, and see them contribute to society. We learn so much from those whom we reach out to and help and are reminded of how we should treasure what we have now. To anyone who is looking to work in the social service sector, remember that you must have a “heart” to care genuinely for others.