Conversing with the founding angel of Creating Smiles

(This exclusive interview first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 26 March 2017.)

Nadera Binte Abdul Aziz is on a dead serious mission to champion greater public awareness about mental health, in particular the state of mind of our super stressed youths in today's grades-obsessed society and their suffering from depression. She does it through Creating Smiles ( check out her Facebook Page here ), a vehicle enacted to launch her set of talks and personal exhibitions, as well as live interviews with various media outlets.

Having struggled with Dysthymia herself since the tender age of 16, Creating Smiles is certainly an endeavor that speaks close to her heart. All the more such a crusader should be lauded for facing her inner demons with strength and grit, at the same time striving to bring solace to others suffering from debilitating mental illnesses/disorders.

We got in touch with Nadera herself and asked to be granted a personal interview; it was after some convincing on our part did we manage to get this angel on board to share with us her insights and dreams.

QN: Good day Nadera, it is with great pleasure that I welcome you to chat with us for a bit. For starters, how about expanding on the essence of Creating Smiles? When was it founded, and what exactly motivated you to do so?

ANS: CreatingS^m^iles was created in 2014 to help me raise greater awareness about mental health. I just graduated from university then (so had a lot of time on my hand!), and completed my very first few public sharing sessions. I discovered first hand how a Facebook page is a great way to share information and stay connected; little did I know that it will become an identity for myself attributed by others.

QN: What would you say are the core tenets driving Creating Smiles? How congruent is its brand of philosophy with your personal set of circumstances?

ANS: The main thrust would definitely be the mission statement developed for CreatingS^m^iles: "To empower individuals in recovery from mental health challenges". To elaborate on this, it aims to encourage individuals in recovery to view themselves as pillars of strength even if society sees them otherwise. It hopes to be a platform where they can come together and feel like they aren't alone, to feel heard and be understood, and to demonstrate to society that they can achieve equally much, if not more. CreatingS^m^iles strives to shatter the harmful stigma of mental illness maintained and propagated by the general public at large. Such a social stigma still very much exists today, and people grappling with mental health challenges face discrimination that is at times more damaging to their well-being than the condition itself.

QN: You specifically cited a mentor on the Creating Smiles site whom you were particularly grateful to for getting your first sharing gig. How did you guys get acquainted initially?

ANS: Mr Chua Seng Lee runs an annual workshop called 'Soulcare' at my university, SIM Global Education (SIM GE), to equip students with the knowledge of depression, as well as the skills to practise self-care and build resilience to life's challenges. I thought to myself then "here I am already suffering from depression, yet still sitting in this workshop learning the knowledge and skills to reduce the chances of getting mental illness?! Oh the irony." I wanted to quit the workshop as it was too emotionally threatening for me. However, Mr Chua probably took notice of my defensive behaviour, and subsequently informed my senses with the most subtle of cues, that he genuinely cared, and was always ready to provide a listening ear. So instead of avoiding the next session, I braved up and took the risk of disclosing my challenges to him in person, and that was where our relationship begun; he continued being my support offline and by being physically present wherever possible. The knowledge I acquired through the workshop also helped (and is still helping) me manage my illness better. One fine day in 2014, he asked if I would like to sit on a panel during an event of his. He gave me the confidence that I could be a voice adequately representing youths suffering from depression and I was strongly heartened by his belief in me. Things just developed from there; I began building up my network as I conducted more sharing sessions, and I continued supporting Mr Chua as a volunteer for his workshops and/or events where possible. I am eternally grateful because 'Soulcare' literally changed my life; so till this day I return to my alma mater every year without fail to facilitate the workshop with him.

QN: At the present moment, does Creating Smiles qualify as a social enterprise? Is it funded by external sources? Might you have additional helping hands on deck to help propagate this lofty cause of yours?

ANS: I don't know whether to curl up in bed in guilt, or to lift my head up high and smile widely when people ask whether CreatingS^m^iles is a social enterprise. CreatingS^m^iles has always fundamentally been, and still is, an online Facebook page to connect with people and share information. I am very VERY heartened when people think otherwise; to me this is evident of how much it has grown, and I am very very proud and eternally grateful for everyone who has supported me and CreatingS^m^iles for it to attain its present level of awareness. Frankly, when I started CreatingS^m^iles, I did not intend it to remain as an online platform for long, as I wanted to be actively doing talks and exhibitions to grow it to become something bigger. Needless to say, that has not happened and when I got employed, I found myself having lesser time and energy to do more. A solo endeavor is never easy, but sad to say amongst my circle of friends I am the odd ball who has ventured into this area of interest and work. As such The Black Dog is an exhibition I am very proud of, and hope to replicate again on a larger scale some day. I am very grateful to SIM GE and the Community Health Assessment Team (CHAT) in working with me to conceptualize and ultimately make the actual exhibition happen. I gladly converse with everyone who asks about this particular exhibition in the hope that somebody with the necessary resources might be able to expand my current efforts considerably to benefit more folks. On my part, I continue to keep CreatingS^m^iles alive, agreeing to requests from others (where my schedule permits of course) for doing talks and/or sharings to keep my passion for mental health advocacy burning.

QN: You have since made numerous appearances on various TV/radio shows, exhibitions and book launches to narrate as well as share your personal experiences. Which by far was the most memorable engagement, and why so?

ANS: Wow where do I start...can I share two instead :D

One would be a sharing I did at *Scape as part of their 'Compassion Series'. In a small group, closed door and intimate setting, I was able to remain seated amongst the audience to tell my story. It was memorable because unlike the typical sharing format where one is upfront on stage or included within a main discussion panel, such an arrangement allowed me to be more forthcoming and open about personal stuff that I usually can't bring myself to talk about on stage or within a large group configuration. In addition, it created a sense of comfort and security for the audience to closely interact without fear. At the end of the session, each participant received a card they could write on to affirm specific speakers or fellow participants. Needless to say I received many cards, and they were all handed over to me personally. Hearing how my sharing had helped more than a handful, and to receive that special and dedicated acknowledgment card from numerous individuals was amazing; I've never gotten so many affirmations at any one point in my life. I still keep that stack of cards till today at my work desk to read them when I'm feeling down. It was also during the same session where I invited my very close friends; despite being a tightly-knitted gang I have never actually shared my story with them in detail, so having them there and narrating every bit really transformed our relationship altogether.

The second one would be my most recent appearance on media as part of the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) 'Speak Up' Campaign. Only my employer and close working colleagues knew about my condition, and even then no details were provided. So it was a big step for me out of my comfort zone to work with them on these media appearances as it meant having my colleagues and almost all of the management team hearing me and my story for the very first time-something I never expected to happen when I initially joined NCSS as an employee. It took me a while to get used to the spotlight of everyone suddenly becoming acquainted with the real me, however today I feel more comfortable and to some extent, allowed myself the tiny luxury of treating yours sincerely a wee bit kinder, ie being honest when I'm not feeling emotionally well, because my colleagues are now more accommodating as a consequence of having acquired proper knowledge from the sharing.:)

QN: Thus far, what do you reckon are the lesson takeaways and successes from running Creating Smiles?

ANS: I constantly marvel in awe at the work done by fellow advocates I've come to know: mobile app creators, social entrepreneurs, writers, etc. I still tend to beat myself up once in a while as to why I can't be as progressive and successful as some of them. I subsequently assure myself by reasoning that at least I'm doing something, versus doing nothing at all. I've learnt not to overlook and underscore the small efforts each and everyone of us can do to speak up and create awareness for something we care about. Another takeaway would be that a one-man team is really not sustainable especially if you want to grow your efforts. Sadly that's the way it is now, and probably would be for some time. Perhaps it is a good thing; it means I can focus more on getting back on my feet before pushing further.

QN: Let's talk about yourself. My apologies if this stings a little. You were exceptionally brave to announce publicly your previous brushes with Dysthymia, might you be able to tell us more about this condition? What are some of the manifesting symptoms? Were you ever apprehensive of the possible social stigma associated with coming out in the open?

ANS: Nah don't worry about it. None of us was born with the knowledge of mental illness, and during my school days I didn't have talks in schools on them either. I wouldn't be surprised if I held some of the misconceptions myself before I had to experience things personally first-hand. After graduating from Junior College I volunteered at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) to challenge my own perspectives and potential prejudice of what persons with mental health issues and hospitals for mental health are like. I had a distant uncle who was a long term patient at IMH, and I never accepted my dad's invite to go visit him because of the previous biasedness I had conjured and maintained (largely from watching movies). Needless to say I was mind-blown during my volunteering experience, and I never saw IMH or mental illness the same way ever again.

Dysthymia is a term that is gaining more awareness for good reasons; when I first tried to understand my struggles through the online teacher known as Google, I kept chancing upon symptoms relating to Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), which partially attempted but at the same time did not explain my challenges very well. Yes life held no meaning for me and I was constantly feeling lethargic no matter how long I slept, though I still left the house everyday to go to school and did well academically. I was active in CCAs and also a school leader in many areas. Dysthymia, to me, is best interpreted as an illness encircling someone who is challenged with the symptoms of MDD over a long period of time (even years), but is still able to function adequately. However, even this definition of mine is being subjected to questioning in recent years where I've met peers and colleagues with MDD but are still operating more or less at full capacities in their day to day activities. Now there is a growing term known as the 'high-functioning'. I guess a medical doctor would be able to shed light on this and Dysthymia much better than myself haha.

Was I apprehensive in making my personal battles with Dysthymia known to the world? Certainly! But as mentioned earlier, I only took the step to do so because I had others around myself who believed in me. So to put it bluntly, even if I do get backlash from coming out in the open (which I did), I have this small group of people to fall back on for support. In time this group has grown bigger and that to me, is the strength of advocates like myself who persistently step into the cross-hairs of vulnerability to let people know the suffering is real. Something I insist when sharing with others who have similar intentions to publicly announce their condition is that self-care must always comes first. Be prepared for the consequences by building yourself a good support network before going down this road; have an adult who can guide and mentor you in your decisions and only attempt a gentle, gradual set of actions. I gain much inspiration from the advocates I know who have been doing this for years; nearly a decade ago when they first came forward the public resistance and stigma encountered were much stronger. Their resilience have pushed the awareness envelope much further to what it is today, and I feel imbued with a sense of meaning and purpose to continue this push even further so that 5-10 years from now, I hope to see a lower level of social stigma attached to mental illness.

QN: Have you sought professional medical help in the meanwhile? What advice would you offer others who are still unable to see light at the end of the tunnel?

ANS: Professional medical help has been an integral part of my recovery. I was seeking support from counselors at the beginning (I saw my first counselor when I was in P5). I sought for a formal diagnosis in 2011 after much support from my counselor in the Family Service Centre in order to understand my challenges more accurately so as to manage them better. Even so I was not one who was consistent with medications . It was during my second year in university when things really took a big plunge that I had to force-start on medications on a regular basis again. It really helped. Just consider the analogy of standing at the bottom of the ladder and having to climb up the rungs one at a time to reach the top. At that point where things looked hopeless and I couldn't muster sufficient energy to attempt the first few rungs, I felt the medications helped to elevate me a little to, say the 3rd rung, so that I didn't need to expend that much effort to keep climbing up say compared to if I had to start from rock bottom. I was getting my sleep and zest back, the voices in my head sort of faded and became less cruel. While the medications did not totally cure me and brought me eventually all the way to the top, it definitely did assist in easing the symptoms so that I could properly ascend the ladder. The road to recovery is very different for everyone, likewise what helps and what doesn't varies from person to person. For my situation, medications honestly helped me quite a bit, and so I continue to take them till today to manage my illness.

Wow that is deep....the funny thing is, I don't think I ever saw the light at the end of the tunnel. It was the support rendered to me by the likes of my counselor and mentor that nudged me bit by bit in the direction of mental clarity. And even frankly speaking right now I will not say I have seen the light either. I've been on this journey for 10 years now, I have met peers who have been in recovery for 20 over years and are still recovering. So do I see the light at the moment? No, but what I do see is that it does get better; when I am at my low I recall similar instances in the past and how I managed to overcome them, to remind myself that any single terrible episode will not last. I'm also slowly trying to accept this whole 'life has ups and downs' saying, so I don't kid myself by saying it gets better forever, because I know that something I do along the way will most likely cause me to fall again. The question that I have to answer everyday is thus "to lay low in order to avoid the pain of falling again?" or "to get back up and 'enjoy' the small things I can be grateful for now at this stage of my recovery until I fall again"? I don't always make the right choice mind you, but that's where the support rallying around me truly matters.

QN: It was reported in the mainstream media last year that according to the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), the number of suicides among those aged between 10 and 19 years old last year spiked to the highest in more than a decade. What are your thoughts on this rather disturbing trend? Some from the middle-aged cluster counter that kids these days are fragile strawberries and can't withstand a wee bit of stress, be it from studies or relationship problems. Do you agree with them?

ANS: Wow this is a question I've struggled to form an opinion about even till the present day. This idea of a 'strawberry' generation is offensive to me, because then I could also insist that our elders weren't as tough as they were made out to be because they too also had it easier and would have been viewed as fragile beings if they were compared to say the people in Africa living in constant poverty and starvation. Basically what I feel is that, you can't blame a child for not being able to bear the heat when you've gotten them accustomed to staying in air-conditioned environments for most parts of their lives. We could also argue from the 'nature vs nurture' perspective where some people are biologically more resilient than others. I also find it offensive when people attribute this notion of fragility to the stresses of studies and relationships, which they simply dismiss as being 'trivial'. Indeed over many generations, studies and relationships have evolved over the years to become very much more complex. The challenges that some folks deem as 'trivial' are in reality way more excruciating when you hear stories of those who have endured bad relationships since childhood; ie they were abused or raped by family and/or friends, bullied or discriminated in school, being compared constantly against their friends or cousins in terms of academic prowess, etc. All these complex challenges evolve in an environment and society where the material aspects of life are amply provided for compared to the time of our elders, hence they unfairly 'expect' you to do better. And we wonder why the young find their lives so stressful these days? From BGR we now face LGBT issues, previously from merely being stressed out by studies we now have stress from studies, extra-curricular activities, tuition, extra classes, projects, etc. Having everything provided for you does not make the challenges disappear, in fact as society has grown so have the challenges, becoming more sophisticated and mind-boggling. And to note, yes while the young may have lost resilience in certain aspects of living, they have also developed resilience in other areas (eg technology)- bear in mind you can't expect a fish (new generation) to climb the tree agilely like a monkey (older generation), neither can you expect the monkey to flourish in the waters (use technology) like the fish.

QN: Once again soliciting for your perspective, with the advent of governmental efforts seeking to soften the biased stance against sufferers of mental illnesses in an increasing number of public campaigns, do you feel the Singaporean society on the whole is now more accommodating of these folks as compared to, say, a decade ago? How can the spirit of embracing those who are different be further nurtured?

ANS: I believe I answered this question earlier, much progress has been made thus far, and so we just got to keep to it and do more to maintain this positive trending of greater societal inclusivity. You highlighted something important, which is how can we nurture efforts in the coming future; the government's increasing involvement in this scene will certainly bring things to a whole new level, and I reckon this is most likely realizable because people on the ground have been unwavering in their push for a better tomorrow.

I am just curious however if this is a question you folks have ever pondered over; will there ever be negative advocacy? I've always been worried that there might be too much advocacy to the point the stigma itself becomes downplayed so much that mental illness no longer warrants the important attention it should get for effective recovery, and that it is therefore cursorily overlooked because it seems like 'everyone' has it, so no biggie right? I've tried to address this in all my sharing sessions, and even started using the term clinical depression versus just depression to highlight the very important difference between plain vanilla emotional roller coasters and bona fide medical illness.

QN: Going forward, what is in the development pipeline for making Creating Smiles even better? How do you envision Creating Smiles 5 years from now?

ANS: Again I think I addressed this earlier. Sorry to burst your ( and my :( ) bubble of hope, but honestly right now as a one-man army, it is very, very challenging for me to come up with anything viable to substantially expand CreatingS^m^iles further. My efforts are now about sustaining and ensuring self-care whilst doing so and when that is accomplished, I can perhaps start contemplating growing this baby of mine physically. Being a volunteer with CHAT I am very inspired by the amazing work done by its group of individuals ranging from art exhibitions, theatre and/or drama, online applications, etc. These to me are more far-reaching as compared to doing talks and sharing; naturally such endeavors involve a lot more thought, commitment, sustainability and structure.

QN: Before concluding this interview, do you have any parting words for our readers?

ANS: I'm sensing in my sharing of late that with greater awareness, people are starting to better appreciate that it takes a lot to support someone in recovery. I do not deny that having information on mental illness, the signs and symptoms, etc is definitely useful in supporting someone. But never forget that they are still human beings like anyone and everyone else first and foremost; they are not defined by their mental illness. Just like all of us having a rough day and just desiring a listening ear, sometimes that's all it takes to extend support to someone. To just be fully present to listen and not judge. If you really want to go a step further, many agencies now provide workshops to provide basic training on peer support skills. Google is still a great place for online self-learning; just be mindful not to blindly ingest information without being suitably discerning, also remember it is a healthy practice to research multiple sources to ascertain the validity of information served up.

The last thing I want is for people to possess the erroneous ''I've never been there so there's nothing I can do to advocate or support someone who is emotionally distressed'' mindset. Be it you as a reader, a teacher, a student in recovery or is suspected of having a mental illness, a student who knows of a friend or family member in recovery, a parent and/or family member whose child is showing signs and symptoms of mental illness; every single one of you can do something. For your health, for the well-being of those around you. It is with great regret I agree with the views that the generation today may indeed be lacking specific social values because of the way society and the education system has evolved. I hope those missing parts will find their way back into our way of life with the efforts of advocates so that the young adults of today will consequently be able to rightfully influence the next generation to become generously compassionate and empathetic. As much as I am regretful, I am also very touched to see a growing number of young adults studying social sciences and volunteering in this field. Even more heartening is that the male: female ratio is reaching a sweet 50-50 equilibrium in two of the agencies I am acquainted with - something that has not happened in the social services sector in a very long time. Hurray.

It has been an absolute pleasure talking to you. Singapore needs warriors fronting social causes like yourself, so please do stay strong and continue to fight for what's rightly meaningful to the society at large. God bless. :)

I'll try; I am always humbled by requests as I am grateful for the trust and opportunity to share whatever little I have. These reminders are what keep me going during tough times, so thank you. :)