Tomorrow I am giving a talk at the Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA). Dr Ang, the Secretary General, has already published an article of mine in their bulletin and featured my work in a book they are publishing which chronicles the stories of the mentally ill patients they work with. On 6th &7th October I've been invited to speak at the World Federation for Mental Health at the 2nd Asia Pacific Conference in Singapore. On 30th April I am giving another talk and meeting with the Director of MMHA to discuss how I can work with them to promote greater mental health awareness. Next Monday I am giving an interview for Female magazine here in Kuala Lumpur about mental health. Dr Ang told me candidly that very few people feel able to talk openly about mental health in Malaysia, well it took me years to come out about my own issues, now I have no choice but to be honest.
Detail from Forest of Minds, the first scroll I created with mentally ill patients at TrActor, in partnership with KAOS, Brussels (30-foot scroll, mixed media, 2013). I am proposing to do a similar project with mentally ill patients attending MMHA in Kuala Lumpur.
Talking openly is the only way forward to encourage others to speak without fear about their mental health. But is it possible for an individual to launch a global mental health campaign? Well I can only try - this is how passionately I feel about the cause.
It is important to give people hope, to remember that I am an artist, writer and a mother of two young children as well as being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. I don't want to be defined by a mental health label. Hearing my story might make people see that it is possible, albeit difficult, to manage the condition, work and be a mother.
Perhaps the hardest thing of all is trying to be normal and fit in, well everyone does have to wear a mask, but for someone with a mental health condition it is essential - if you want to integrate within society and not be ostracised.
The stigma related to mental health in the UK and Brussels, which is where I mainly work, is endemic, but in Asia it is far worse. According to statistics 12 percent of the population in Malaysia has a mental health issue, in Indonesia the practice of chaining the mentally ill is pervasive. The mentally ill are perceived as weak, as failures and as a burden on society.
For some mentally ill patients perhaps it is the case that they might be on long term medication for the rest of their lives and almost totally debilitated by their condition, but they are still human beings and deserve care, compassion and stimulation.
Then there are those mentally ill women who are pregnant, I am desperate to try and help them, to pass on the knowledge that I have acquired about my own maternal mental health problems and of course it is vital that we protect future generations. Mental illness is a rising problem for our young, perhaps due to the pressures of social media we have never seen a time where there have been so many cases of depression, self-harm and eating disorders, to name a few of the conditions afflicting young people.
This is why I am now campaigning for greater global awareness and understanding regarding mental health. It is a global epidemic and we cannot rely on mental health care practitioners to come up with all the solutions; we have to work together to spread some light, to somehow cut through the sea of darkness that many of us find ourselves drowning in. If there is a crisis in mental health in Europe, this is certainly the case in Asia, so we all have to do our bit to instigate change. If local Malaysians are too afraid to speak openly about mental health, I am happy to take on that role. There is no shame in it, I didn't ask to have psychosis or postpartum psychosis and no one should be vilified for being afflicted with such mental ailments.
Altruism is one way of healing and making sense of what has happened to me, this is how I rationalise it all, perhaps I have been faced with these mental health challenges in order to help and educate others.
This is why I wrote my book Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too, written under the pseudonym Q.S.Lam (Muswell Hill Press, 2015), this is why I conceive art projects with mentally unwell patients, because I believe art and using your hands have a palliative impact on the mind. It is possible to seize the darkness that inhabits us and transform it into something amazing. This is why I write poems, which pour out of me fully formed, to make sense of the injustice that I see thrust upon the mentally ill. This is why I am here in Asia to take my campaign beyond the parameters of the UK and Belgium to the rest of the world. And I have already presented my book in Burma and Bangladesh via the British Council.
Reading excerpts from my book and showing examples of my work demonstrate how the power of creativity can be used to fortify the mind against all that is hurled at it on a daily basis. Mine is a lifelong battle that I will never win, but I accept the fight and I never stop fighting for that splinter of light to guide me out of the dark prison that my mind often becomes. My main motivation for fighting are my children, I want to protect them from the 'mad' gene they might have inherited from me, to give them the tools to understand the complexities of their own minds. If, globally, we teach our young mental health skills early on in life maybe they can dodge the bullet.