story | Evan Ma, Guest Contributor

photo | Serena Quay

From second hand information, I knew that he took a Leave of Absence (LOA) because he was clinically depressed. He did so after I had gone to Japan, and I didn’t find out until I came back to school. When I met him again a year later, I realized we were in the same boat of needing to catch up with work in school. That was the consensus we had while I steeled my resolve to get down to work. The only time I saw him during the semester was about three weeks ago, when he happened to pop in on my study group and the three of us studied together before going for a kopi run. As we walked and talked, I never noticed anything amiss. We were still joking, laughing, talking about Middle Eastern politics, making light passing statements about the busyness of school, and I never once asked how he might have been doing. Of course the reply would be “Yeah I’m doing good”, and in any normal circumstances, people wouldn’t just blurt out their true feelings while taking a walk to Koufu. But now that I think about it, it’s so important to check in with people every time you meet them. It can be a little awkward, but knowing that lives are at stake, making it clear to others that you care does make a difference.

Later, I would learn that the process of re-entry into school was a hard one. For students like me who took a year off to study, and who made that clear to the school, re-entry was easy. I got my letter of reinstatement almost instantly. Others may not have had it so easy. The school is a little more cautious when it comes to re-admitting students who have a history of mental illness, thinking that they may relapse and not be able to cope with the demands of school. While I most certainly understand the intentions of the school administration in taking such precautions, surely we must be more welcoming? For those students who do eventually come back, the thought of having to leave school again and go through the same procedure does not encourage them to take a rest. I believe the school’s duty is to nurture generations of thinkers and doers in times to come. First and foremost, however, the students must be well, both physically and mentally, and the school should support that too. I remember talking to Vice-Rector Suyin, six weeks after I had returned to school, who said that she was always referring to me as an example of a student who took an LOA but wasn’t depressed. You can take an LOA and have goals, she said. I sensed something amiss, but couldn’t put my finger on it.

With all this information coming together, I can finally pinpoint what felt off: There’s nothing wrong with taking an LOA because of mental illness. If you feel unwell, it is perfectly valid to take some time off to recover. Students who don’t want to take an LOA because they’re afraid of the perception that they are “mentally ill” is a sign that there is a stigma towards students with mental illness. This is reflective of an attitude that says we have to be strong in front of others, and that we must soldier on.

This attitude is partly caused by the signals that students receive from the moment we step into school. CIPE reminds us of the students who started their own NGOs, the entrepreneurs who ran successful businesses, the musicians who won competitions and accolades worldwide, all before coming to college. We are reminded of the potential we have within us, and the hope that we can make the most of the resources Yale-NUS College has to offer. And then the posturing begins. We hold people to high standards of expectation, calling them “experts” in their fields. We get ourselves involved in many things at once, become busy, and start flaking out on things we can’t commit to. We are constantly under pressure to perform, not least because the administration tells us that we are special, and that we can achieve. When we do achieve, it all works out; we rejoice and reaffirm our specialness — until we start to break.

When we don’t do well in a class or attend disappointing classes, organize an event that has mixed results, or get jaded by the amount of work we have to deal with in school, then the narrative of our lives begins to change. School is not the ideal world we imagine it to be. It is a little more imperfect, a little more of a work in progress, yet our everyday conversations do not change. When we ask each other, “How are you?”, we reply with a casual “I’m really busy this semester, I’m doing that insane project, that wild variety of courses, those four part-time jobs with those eight CCAs”. Perhaps we’re subconsciously seeking affirmation, like “Wow, that’s great!” or “Sounds like you’re doing amazing stuff”. When we receive it, we convince ourselves that we’re happy and fulfilled, even though we’ve barely had the time to sleep or be with those that matter to us.

Very rarely would we talk about the problems that really matter, such as the existential question of why we continue living, and what we are living for. Let us not talk about the shallow, “Oh, that class was horrible” kind of problem, but about the “Why am I learning? How are things that I’m learning applicable to the world outside of Yale-NUS?” kind of problem. We take these deeper questions for granted and let time tick by without addressing them. Of course we may do so from time to time, but rarely does this happen, for the weekly routine of essays and problem sets keep us on our toes. Everyone is too busy and caught up with their own problems to be aware of how they are actually doing as a community.

Yet we should beware of going to the other extreme and getting in the habit of telling people we’re tired and stressed out. Once I heard someone remark, “the moment someone says they’re stressed out, everyone starts to say that too, and it just becomes a negative echo chamber – people just say it without really feeling it.” Indeed, while being honest with your feelings is a good thing, there’s a need to give strength to each other when we most need it.

I believe that resilience comes through mindfulness. Mindfulness means being present in every moment, and understanding your current state of mind. What are you thinking about right now? How are you feeling right now – are you angry, frustrated, sad, hopeful? Being mindful brings a sense of calmness, and an awareness that we all need to be honest and true to our emotions. As we build a community of mindful people, we are able to devote our attention to conversations that really matter to our hearts. I have been guilty all semester of ignoring people, thinking about my own problems of catching up with school, and not being present in other people’s lives. I set out with an iron-clad spirit: I would not waver from my goals and would do what it took to attain them, even if it means spending less time with others or going out less. But as the semester marches on, our recent loss reminds me that there are people who have been (and still are) important to me, and that I ought to be more deliberate about the time I spend with them. Instead of spending two unproductive hours on a question that will bring me nowhere, I should spend it with friends and talk about something that matters.

For far too long, I have thought that vulnerability is important, and that it is important for me to be vulnerable and open to others, but just thinking that it would inspire others to be vulnerable is naïve. Through my presence, and thoughts, I need to take action. Take people on study breaks, go for food excursions, go into nature, and be there for people. From time to time,  I need to rely on people as well. I have already been doing so, but this is a potent reminder of how fragile and precious life truly is. The narrative of our lives does not involve just one person, but all the people who have, by chance or by deliberation, been involved in the history we’ve created. Let us continue building our narratives together, and not forget ourselves or each other along the way.

The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: yncoctant@gmail.com

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