Last year, by a stroke of serendipity, I encountered four young doctors-to-be who banded together in August to form Mental Muscle, an initiative aimed at raising funds and awareness for mental health. It’s a cause close to their hearts, and they are putting their money where their mouths are by participating in the 250km Namib Desert Race in May 2016 — a part of the 4Deserts series by RacingThePlanet.The quartet from the NUS Yong Loo Lin School Of Medicine is made up of Jonathan See, Nicholas Eu, Stephen Hwang and Jon Tan. After their psychiatric-ward posting, the outdoor-adventure-loving friends unanimously decided to dedicate their desert run towards mental health and raise funds for Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH) — the first community mental health agency in Singapore which works towards providing quality step-down care and rehabilitative services to persons with mental health conditions.
The group strongly felt that the stigma, misunderstanding and ignorance surrounding mental illnesses have to be addressed, and their project, Mental Muscle, is their attempt at making a difference.
Amid their busy training and class schedule, these four amazing young adults spared me some time to talk about their cause and training preparations for the Namib Desert challenge.
Why mental health?
I (Jonathan) was at a morning ward round at the hospital (where doctors and nurses review patients’ progress and recovery) when I saw the team struggling with their decision to discharge a patient, who had been abandoned by his family, from the hospital. There were no visitors throughout his entire hospital stay, and he has no home to return to. No one was willing to care for him or even pay for the hospital bills.
We traded numerous stories like this, and it became apparent to us that these social circumstances are far too common in patients facing mental illnesses. Many patients come from difficult social backgrounds and they are ostracised by even their own family.
This realisation led us to our decision to dedicate our run towards mental health.
Tell us more about Mental Muscle
Mental Muscle is not only about the run. A big part of it is before-and-after the race. Currently, we are raising awareness using online platforms, and we will be engaging the media in time to come. We are also working very closely with our beneficiary SAMH in their rehabilitation and vocational training programmes. We have plans for awareness campaigns coming up, encouraging social media users to share their reflections on mental health topics we post weekly on our Facebook. We hope these activities will encourage more people to want to learn about and understand mental illnesses, and help spread the awareness.
We are also considering radio talk shows with psychiatry professors that can reach out to the general public for educational purposes. Many of these discussions are currently underway. Even after the race, we will continue to raise the awareness for mental illnesses.
What do you guys think of the general level of understanding of mental illnesses in Singapore?
We have noticed more mental health awareness campaigns in recent years, but in general, awareness is still low in our opinion, and there is a lot of misunderstanding towards mental illnesses. People tend to say “it’s all in your mind”, or “just get over it”, but mental illnesses like many other illnesses, can affect anyone, and patients do not have a choice over whether it afflicts them or not. Mental illnesses are recognised medical diseases that require proper medical treatment for recovery.
Nobody shuns someone with diabetes, cancer or hypertension, mental health issues should be no different.
How do your friends and family feel about your project?
At first, many of them could not understand why we were doing this, and more than once, our families have tried convincing us to drop the idea as they were very concerned for our safety. It took almost two months of persuasion before all of us managed to get full support from our families. Over the past six months, as they see us dedicating our time and effort, training and planning for Mental Muscle, they have come to realise the importance of this project to us, and they have grown to become very supportive. Same with our friends, they are very concerned but supportive.
Their support has been an important driving force for our team.
Speaking of support, let’s talk about having a SEA Games gold medallist for a trainer for the run.
(Mental Muscle managed to enlist Dr Mok Ying Ren to help with their training plans. Dr Mok is a two-time SEA Games Gold medallist in triathlon and marathon, and he is one of the more prominent Singapore runners in recent years. Currently, he is training to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympics.)
Dr Mok is an alumni of Raffles Institution and NUS Yong Loo Lin School Of Medicine. When we were looking for someone to develop a training plan for us, Dr Mok quickly came to mind. He provided a well-designed training plan and connected us with some of his own sponsors. We are extremely grateful for his help.
Dr Mok’s training plan for us is based on a detailed description of some of the conditions we expect to face in the Namib Desert. Some training tips he has given us include doing five-minute runs followed by 30-second breaks, and repeating the cycle during our long team runs on weekends. This will ensure that we can condition ourselves to cover the long distances in the desert with small breaks interspersed between. His training plan also includes two long runs on weekends and two short runs on weekdays, adding up to four trainings per week.
To be honest, we haven’t been able to keep up with his training plans religiously, especially with our busy clinical schedules and exams coming up, but we try our best to stick to it and we keep training as one of our top priorities!
How’s training progress in terms of mileage and acclimatisation?
We have identified five key areas to train in: Heat acclimatisation, sandy terrain, weight conditioning, elevation training and distance training. We are now clocking about 20km three times a week with an 8kg bag. We are changing our terrain from roads to more sandy trails and training the vertical climbs at Pinnacle@Duxton. As the months go by, we will increase the distance, weight, and include heat acclimatisation as well as consecutive days of training to mimic the conditions at the Namib Desert.
Who’s the main “driver” in the group – the one who whips the group into shape?
There is no main “driver” in our group. Each of us has a main role. Nicholas is in charge of sponsorship and training, Jonathan is in charge of publicity and media, Stephen is in charge of fundraising and treasury, and Jon is in charge of awareness and education. Each of these areas contribute to major part of team Mental Muscle, and each one of us whips the team into shape for the area we take charge of.
With Mental Muscle as one of our top priorities, there are definitely sacrifices to be made in other commitments. Family remains a top priority for all of us, and we also do our best to keep in touch with friends despite our busy schedules. However, there are many occasions where we have given up on opportunities to go out with friends, in order to have training or meetings with partners and sponsors. Fortunately, our friends have been very understanding of our situation and even send us words of encouragement whenever we were unable to turn up for events. We make sure to spend our time as efficiently as possible.
Quotes of wisdom you live by.
“The only lousy run is the run you didn’t do.” – Dr Mok Ying Ren
“Live a little braver, dream a little bigger.” – Soh Rui Yong
“Live life to the fullest, leave no regrets.” – Mental Muscle
The topic of mental health is one I, too, hold dear to my heart. A good friend of mine who fights her daily battles with the “Black Dog” once told me that doctors may study depression, but they will never be able to empathise and know what it means to have depression and live with it. So it is heart-warming to see doctors-to-be raise awareness and fund this meaningful cause.
You can support Mental Muscle and their cause by donating to their project. From now till 31 March 2016, under the Care & Share Scheme, the Singapore government will match your donation 1-for-1.
Here’s wishing Mental Muscle best of luck in their training and fund raising efforts.