My child has depression, and I’m thankful for COVID-19: The mental health story for every parent
What happens when you learn that your child has a condition like depression? After the initial shock, anger, denial and sense of helplessness, these parents chose acceptance and built closer bonds. CNA Insider finds out how they did it.
SINGAPORE: When one of his daughters first told him she had major depression, Prashant Pundrik’s emotions were a contradictory mixture of regret, anxiety and resentment.
Regret that he had not been a good father, despite his best efforts. Anxiety about how his daughter was going to cope and what was going to happen to her. Resentment over how this could happen to him, when he had done his best for his child.
After he reached out to close friends to find out more about the medical condition, there was the matter of dealing with his ego.
They told him it would take time to help his daughter — and that he would have to change. “They were very open with me … No sugar-coating or mincing their words,” Pundrik recalled.
“That was, I think, the second slap in the face in a matter of a few days. I need to change myself? I’m perfect, I don’t do anything wrong. How do we improve perfection?”
A venture builder who invests in start-ups and scales them, the 51-year-old with three master’s degrees prided himself on being his family’s “chief problem solver”. It came as a rude shock when he realised he was the last to know about his daughter’s condition.
“She didn’t have the confidence that I’d take her issues seriously … that I’d have a solution for her and I wouldn’t make it worse,” said Pundrik, who has twin daughters aged 20.
He has COVID-19 to thank for the discovery — and for the transformed relationship he has with his daughter today.
Read Parts 1 and 3 — Youth Mental Health:
She had been studying in the United Kingdom and, like many overseas students, returned to Singapore in early 2020 as the pandemic spread. While self-isolating in her room, she divulged during one late-night conversation, from behind the closed door, that she was battling major depression.
It had lasted for six months, and she had sought help from the UK’s National Health Service but was struggling with the prescribed medication. She had thoughts of self-harm.
Much of the conversation was about how Pundrik had made things worse for her.
“She — we — spoke about how I hadn’t been a wonderful father, how I’d never been there for her or how I hadn’t been able to support her (in) a lot of things,” he said.
For example, there were periods when he would not call her for weeks; he assumed she was busy with her studies. This was a carry-over from his own experience studying abroad decades ago, when phone calls home were expensive and rare.
Over the years, Pundrik had also fallen into the habit of lecturing her, which made her distant and wary of talking to him. “She saw me only as somebody who was a preacher and not a father who’d understand her,” he said.
When she played football at junior college, for instance, he was not supportive. “I said, if you want to score well in your A level exams, you can’t be playing football every day for four hours and then come home tired. And then you can’t study,” he recounted.
Although he remembers being defensive and shocked when she broke the news of her depression to him, he holds himself “a lot more responsible now” for her mental situation.
Other parents may blame themselves when they first learn of their children’s mental struggles. What did they do wrong? Had they not given their children everything that was needed for a comfortable life? What was the problem then?
The biggest question of all: How do they help their children now?
WHY YOUTHS MAY FEAR OPENING UP
The reluctance of Pundrik’s daughter to tell him about her mental state or that she needed help is not uncommon, according to youths, educators and experts.
WATCH: Why children and teenagers struggle with mental health | Confronting youth mental health — Part 1/2 (24:04)
Some youths told CNA Insider they broke the news to their parents only after feeling utterly tired of hiding their condition. Others blurted it out during a conversation or argument or after realising they needed help to pay for therapy.
Their apprehension may not be unfounded.
Many times, when children open up about mental health issues, their parents think it is a phase, said clinical psychologist Cherie Chan. Some also think their children are weak or should not feel depressed, because they have “everything in life”.
This resistance stems from feeling helpless, she reckoned. “I’d like to think that for most parents, their primary aim is to protect, nurture, guide, so when mental health issues come up, it’s uncontrollable … it’s too big. So, the helplessness.”
Parents may also feel that they enjoyed school or survived the challenges of their younger days and expect the same of their children.
When Mira (not her real name), 38, was growing up, her mother caned her “until (her) skin tore a bit”. “I grew up normally — I’d expect (my daughter) to grow up normally as well,” she said.
She knows she was “very fierce and harsh” to her daughter. She told her child things like “how I wish I’m not your mum” and “can you just grow up, behave yourself and stop it”.
But these are different times, experts pointed out. The stakes of national examinations, for example, are now higher.
There is the Internet, which has made youths’ world much bigger, as well as the onslaught of social media, which can expose them to cyberbullying and trigger the fear of missing out.
“We forget that it’s a different time. So last time, we were very happy with the trishaw or rickshaw,” said Chan. “You can still (use this mode of transport), but it’s just not going to work in this current climate.”
To bridge the gap, both parents and children should acknowledge that they do not know everything and that they will disagree on some things.
Instead of jumping on children about their behavioural problems, parents can take the time to ask why, advised Chan. They could say something like, “Tell me what you’re really trying to say. When you’re acting out like that, it’s difficult to hear you and help you. I want to understand.”
WATCH: Are young people getting the help they need? | Confronting youth mental health — Part 2/2 (31:15)
NO ‘PLEXIGLAS WALLS’
Parents would also do well to step into their children’s world and tear down any “Plexiglas walls” that exist, said Pundrik, referring to a situation where family members live in separate silos under the same roof.
For him, earning his daughter’s trust was not easy. She was initially doubtful that he had changed for the long haul.
He opened up to her by admitting his mistakes. To spend time with her, he watched Korean dramas and drank bubble tea for the first time in his life. It was his way of saying, “I’m open to doing things that you like”.
He worried about whether she would continue with her studies but did not bring up the issue when they were together. “My previous self would’ve done that,” he said. This more understanding Pundrik knew that “life is long” and that the matter could be taken care of later.
His daughter preferred to be awake at night and sleep during the day as she did not like too much light, noise or people. The old Pundrik would have nagged at her. But the new, supportive Pundrik shortlisted K-dramas so she did not run out of serials to watch.
What helped him was a 12-week caregiver workshop conducted by the non-profit Caregivers Alliance Limited (CAL). The organisation’s signature programme is a fully funded course for carers of persons with mental health issues.
It marries knowledge with practical skills, said CAL executive director Tim Lee, by helping attendees understand more about the brain, mental illnesses, medication, treatment methods, communicating with their loved ones, and resilience and recovery.
Pundrik, who learnt about the course from his other daughter, said carers have a big role in their loved ones’ healing journey because they spend “most of the waking hours” together.
Mother-of-five Rahayu Ahmad Asi, 44, is thankful that she had more time for that during the pandemic. The former schoolteacher was giving tuition before COVID-19 hit, but after tuition centres closed during Singapore’s circuit breaker, she looked for something else to do and chanced upon coaching.
She learnt skills to reach out to her daughter, who was having a tough time coping with her grandmother’s death, her friends’ mean comments about her size, as well as aches and pains arising from hypermobility, a condition in which joints can move and bend more than usual — which affected her dance aspirations.
The 15-year-old had become withdrawn and did not want to wake up for school following the circuit breaker. She was getting treatment for hypermobility in KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, and the school counsellor advised Rahayu to get an internal referral to a psychologist there.
They waited about eight months until November to see a psychologist, but Rahayu’s coaching sessions, which started in September, helped. She learnt to listen fully — instead of listening to answer — and to listen without judgement.
“Let’s say I’m in the middle of something: I’d say, ‘If it’s not urgent, let me finish up whatever I want to do, then I’ll get back to you,’” she said.
From not talking, mother and daughter began chatting for hours.
ACCEPTING A DIFFERENT PATH FOR YOUR CHILD
Her daughter, who was diagnosed with social anxiety and comorbid depression, took the year off school in 2021. Rahayu’s coaches helped her to accept that her child would not be taking “the normal path”. “But that doesn’t mean she won’t be successful in her own way,” Rahayu said.
Another challenge awaited: The girl asked to live with her aunt, saying she needed space.
Rahayu initially could not accept this, but a CAL counsellor suggested to her that she could allow it after setting some boundaries. So she requested that her daughter call her regularly and return at weekends to reconnect with her siblings.
The decision turned out to be a good one. When her daughter returned home after three months, she said she missed Rahayu’s cooking and had decided what course to pursue after secondary school.
“I was quite shocked but, in a way, happy that she’s calmer and more stable and able to think through what she’s going to do,” said Rahayu.
Rahayu, who has since become a parenting coach, has this advice for parents: Your children are humans with a heart and mind of their own. “Get to know your child for who he or she is, not what you want them to be,” she said.
‘WHY IS IT HAPPENING AGAIN?’
One thing that interviewees who have struggled with mental health agree on is that recovery is not linear. Struggles with mental conditions can persist for years, weighing on not only the afflicted but also their carers.
This can be frustrating, said Mira. After learning about her daughter’s mental struggles from the school counsellor, mother and daughter sat down to talk about how they wanted each other to change.
The 18-year-old wanted Mira to stop using harsh words, while Mira asked her daughter to stop hiding things from her and lying. She did tell her daughter at some point that she could not change her personality “100 per cent”.
Prior to this, they had been distant in more ways than one: The girl had lived with her grandparents in secondary school and only moved back in with Mira after that.
Under their new arrangement, Mira ensured that they set aside at least 10 minutes a day to chat and gave her daughter hugs and kisses.
But when her daughter went back to scratching herself during periods of stress, Mira found herself asking, “Why is it happening again?”
She learnt not to show her frustration, however, and would tell her daughter they would talk later. For her, the more important questions to ask instead are: Are you okay? What do you need from me?
She has also become her daughter’s staunchest defender.
When her daughter got lost on the way to a school outing, which triggered a panic attack, the school blamed the girl for not disclosing her mental condition. Mira felt the reaction lacked empathy and wrote to the school. “I fought for her,” she said.
Despite the outcome — the school enforced a two-week break and required a doctor’s certification that she was fit to return — Mira’s daughter told CNA Insider the incident showed that her mum really cared and had listened to everything she said.
‘IF I COULD REWIND … BUT I CAN’T’
For carers, finding support is important, which is what attending a caregiving course can also offer.
Mother-of-two Jasmine (not her real name) remembers crying during the first session of her course after realising “a lot of people were going through the same thing as (she was)”.
Many course attendees feel guilt after learning about all they should not have done, said CAL’s Lee. But they also benefit when they learn to let go and take care of their own mental health.
“Many of our caregiver parents (have regrets). But (after the course) they’re saying, ‘Now I know. I’m going to apply the things that I’ve learnt: Communication skills, problem-solving, how to handle a crisis,’” he said. “It’s a good thing just to move forward.”
It has been quite the journey for Jasmine, whose elder daughter — the “love of my life”, she said — has major depression.
The 46-year-old, who requested anonymity, remembers feeling angry when she found out that her daughter began self-harming in Primary Five. “Why (when other) people do this, you also follow?” Jasmine wanted to know.
The girl told her parents about her deep fear of the Primary School Leaving Examination. She was afraid that if she fared poorly, no one would love her and she would not progress to a “good school”, which would affect the rest of her life.
Jasmine does not know how this fear developed as she and her husband had only asked their girls to try their best, she said. If the children needed help, they were offered tuition.
She thinks giving her daughter free rein to watch television could be a factor — there was a drama series that involved teenage suicide. “If I can rewind and go back (in time), I’d tell her no, you’re not watching this,” said Jasmine.
As a parent, a lot of the time (I wish) I can pause, rewind, redo. But I can’t.”
Her daughter later got panic attacks whenever exams rolled around and would end up submitting blank test papers. She began isolating herself, but Jasmine, who was travelling a lot for work before the pandemic, thought her child was merely going through a rebellious period.
Then the pandemic hit, and Jasmine lost her job. She stopped travelling but took up odd jobs and worked long hours. When she made efforts to “get near” her daughter, only to be pushed away, she began to realise something was wrong.
TWO STEPS FORWARD, ONE BACK
One night, her daughter told her she did not want to live any more. Jasmine went blank; at that moment, she hated herself. They both cried, and Jasmine pleaded with her to “let Mummy help”.
Jasmine sought help from her daughter’s school, but sessions with the counsellor did not work. Her daughter was referred to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) and saw several therapists before “clicking” with one. But she did not really respond to therapy.
So last May, she started on antidepressants. They caused her mood to dive, and “her suicide ideation was so strong”, said her mother.
She was rushed to the emergency department, returned two days later and was subsequently warded for over two weeks. She lost weight during the stay, which broke Jasmine’s heart.
Jasmine searched for more options and learnt about a doctor in Mount Elizabeth Hospital from a schoolmate of her daughter’s. Its psychiatric ward was full, and they waited a few days to get a bed. But the stay helped, and Jasmine saw her daughter “healing better”.
Hefty costs aside, the caregiving challenges did not stop. Her daughter grew “dependent” on the hospital and repeatedly asked to be admitted — until Jasmine put her foot down and said she would not allow it if the hospital was a means of “escape”.
Because of this, her daughter once had a meltdown while they were out. Jasmine had to drag her home.
Caregiving took a toll. After her course had ended, Jasmine still reached out to the course manager when she felt lost. He sensed she was burnt out. “I said, if I can, I want to die now. I said, work is crazy,” she recalled.
“(As for finances), if I could sell both my kidneys I would. As for my kid, it’s like two steps forward, one step back. (With) my younger one, I feel guilty about not having time with her. I’m just so overwhelmed by a lot of things.”
The course manager arranged for her to see a counsellor for free, and Jasmine is “very thankful” for this. “Right now, (I’m) still (under) stress, but I know how to manage,” she said.
Her elder daughter is also “getting better”. The teenager finds solace in her religious faith and has started playing the guitar and singing. After a break from school, she returned for an hour each day for the final fortnight of the last school year and is now fully back.
“She’s more caring now, more understanding,” said Jasmine. “There are days when she’s not okay, so we just need to work with her.
Every day, I have to remind her how much I love her.”
IT CAN HAPPEN TO ANYONE
For Pundrik, journeying with his daughter has also been life-changing. He was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in 2016 but never dared to take medication for it until 2020, after he began learning about caregiving.
“Just like I understood my daughter’s illness, I understood my own illness,” said Pundrik, who is now a trainer in the CAL course. “I had the misconception that I’d develop a dependency on the medication.”
He now knows mental illness can happen to anybody and thinks people should not have the “false belief that it won’t happen to you or a loved one”.
“This whole caregiving journey will also change you as a person … Sometimes I’m so thankful for COVID-19, thankful for my daughter’s illness, that all these things happened,” he added.
“Otherwise, I’d never have become a better person, I’d never have understood myself … My daughter and I are now best friends.”
This article by CNA Insider was done in partnership with Temasek Foundation and the Institute of Mental Health. Read Part 1 on how more youths are seeking help with mental health, but finding it isn’t always easy.
Where to get help:
Samaritans of Singapore 24-hour Hotline: 1-767
Institute of Mental Health Helpline: 6389 2222
Community Health Assessment Team (CHAT): www.chat.mentalhealth.sg/
Singapore Association of Mental Health Helpline: 1800 283 7019
SAMH SAY-IT: 9179 4087 / 9179 4085 or samhsayit [at] samhealth.org.sg
Club HEAL: 6899 3463
TOUCHLINE: 1800-377-2252 or @doyoumindsg
Other mental health mobile apps: CARA Unmask, Safe Space, Intellect, MindFi, Myloh
You can also find a list of international helplines here. If someone you know is at immediate risk, call 24-hour emergency medical services.