By Dayna Yin
As NTU students themselves, Confidants from the University Wellbeing Centre’s (UWC) Peer Helping Programme (PHP) are all too familiar with the stress that sets in at the end of semester.
The onslaught of assignment deadlines, intense exam revision and multiple all-nighters can turn even the most fun-loving, sociable students into temporary hermits — up till the finals period, which ends in early December.
“We forget who we are… it’s as if (studying) is the only purpose of living,” said Joseph Lim, 23, a third-year School of Social Sciences student and PHP Confidant.
Lim believes that seeking support, particularly from others in similar situations, can help students cope better with stress.
There are currently around 50 PHP Confidants — from various faculties and disciplines — in NTU. They have been selected and trained by the UWC staff to offer their peers one-on-one emotional support.
PHP Confidants work to erase the stigma associated with seeking mental health assistance through raising awareness on campus, by organising events and activities to engage the student community.
The PHP was started in 2007, in collaboration with NTU’s psychology interest group Psychology Society.
In line with the campus community approach, the PHP Confidants work alongside the UWC counsellors to support students who require assistance.
A 2016 international analysis by the University of Connecticut reported that experiencing high levels of stress can negatively affect one’s physical health. If no effective coping strategies are adopted, this intense mental stress could lead to serious psychological problems such as depression and anxiety.
The PHP Confidant team thus advocates the practice of self-care, especially when stress starts to affect one’s physical and emotional state.
Changes in eating and sleeping patterns, along with mood swings and “study burnouts”, are clear indicators that it might be time to take a break from schoolwork.
Self-care was a key focus of the team’s World Mental Health Day celebration last month. Self-care advocates that individuals adopt actions and attitudes to help themselves achieve a steady state of mental well-being.
To bring awareness to this concept, the PHP Confidants set up a mental health awareness booth on 10 and 11 Oct at the Linkway in the NTU Administration Building.
The booth included a photo wall and self-care pledging zone, where visiting students could write personal pledges affirming their commitment to self-care on silver ribbons — the national symbol of mental health.
“What we were trying to establish with this event was that self-care is the best care,” said Keene Ong, a final-year School of Civil and Environmental Engineering student.
The 25-year-old is the PHP Confidants’ events team leader. Together with other Confidants, they teach simple stress-relieving exercises and organise activities to raise awareness on positive mental health practices.
“Even though some students were rushing for classes, it was very encouraging that they came down to pick up a self-care pack, even writing to us after the event about how they now practice self-care better,” he added.
At the event, students were introduced to stress-relieving and relaxation exercises, such as using a tennis ball to massage under the kneecap to relieve muscle tension.
They were also given a goody bag containing snacks such as bananas and Milo drink packets.
“During exam times or submissions, sometimes students give up food and sleep to keep on studying. But with that, they harm themselves,” said Gayana Herath, a third-year Interdisciplinary Graduate School student.
“You need to prioritise your own health so that you can work smarter,” added the 26-year-old, who became a PHP Confidant three months ago.
Originally from Sri Lanka, Gayana found that the culture shock from being part of such a diverse campus can be overwhelming for international students like herself.
This can take a toll on their mental and emotional health, on top of having to deal with the demands of their studies, she said.
In 2010, research by the University of Melbourne found that while the majority of international students coped well with adapting to the host university’s culture and norms, over 40 per cent of the international student population exhibited antisocial, and even reckless, behaviour while dealing with personal issues.
Many of these students are also wary of seeking professional help, added Gayana.
Understanding the effects of such loneliness and cultural stress inspired her to become a PHP Confidant.
Gayana regards her PHP Confidant training as a beneficial social skill for life beyond university, particularly in the workplace, where certain situations may require knowledge of mental health management and support.
“If you know how to empathise with the situation, society will be a better place,” she said.
Fellow PHP Confidant Ivan Yeo, 20, believes counselling can enable one to help others beyond what medical treatment can provide.
The second-year Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine student finds that while doctors can help in identifying a physical health problem, well-being exists on a “spectrum”, as everyone has different backgrounds and experiences.
Due to the subjective nature of mental health, special attention and support is always required in addressing these issues.
“Healthcare professionals may not pick up on these problems, so by looking out for our peers in the NTU community, we can better support them,” said Yeo.
Confidants interviewed say they too have experienced personal growth, through learning about good mental health practices and applying their skills in helping others.
“I think this programme helped me to be more attuned to the issues people face. When we talk about mental health, it’s hidden behind our skulls,” said Head Confidant Muhammad Izzuddin, a final-year School of Social Sciences student. “We don’t know if someone is going through emotional turmoil.”
According to the 24-year-old, it takes dedication and work to develop skills in building trust with others through empathy and patience.
“Even if it is just (helping) one person, I think that’s a huge achievement in itself,” he said.