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Let’s talk about mental health: Film festival wants to grow conversation in S’pore

SINGAPORE — When she was a little girl, Ms Cheryl Tan began writing notes to herself, tucking them into a green box for safekeeping.

A year ago, Ms Cheryl Tan hatched a plan to organise a film festival to reach a larger audience and discuss mental health issues in a “less intrusive and more accessible way”.

A year ago, Ms Cheryl Tan hatched a plan to organise a film festival to reach a larger audience and discuss mental health issues in a “less intrusive and more accessible way”.

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SINGAPORE — When she was a little girl, Ms Cheryl Tan began writing notes to herself, tucking them into a green box for safekeeping.

But these were not ordinary notes, as she detailed her thoughts of wanting to die.

Her suicidal thoughts persisted over the years, and her parents were ill-equipped to help and she did not know who to reach out to.

Eventually, it led to a mental breakdown during her university days in Canada where she found herself wanting to jump off the 10th floor balcony of the university building.

“I’d always been afraid to call for help. I only knew I was suicidal, I didn’t think I had depression,” the 32-year-old told TODAY in an interview last month.

The incident prompted Ms Tan to seek help from a psychotherapist. She also started practising yoga as a form of treatment, which led her to start The Breathe Movement in 2014 after she returned to Singapore. It is a social enterprise that runs yoga programmes for those suffering from trauma or mental health issues.

A year ago, she hatched a plan to organise a film festival to reach a larger audience and discuss mental health issues in a “less intrusive and more accessible way”. Along with two of her close friends, she scoured the Internet to curate and acquire the films, as well as put together workshops and panel discussions.

The result of their efforts is the inaugural Singapore Mental Health Film Festival, which will run from Feb 21 to 24 at The Projector at Beach Road.

The festival will feature 11 films in total — seven international films, such as Still Alice starring American actress Julianne Moore, and four short films including two Singaporean ones. Each film is focused on different mental health issues or illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.

There will also be 45-minute panel discussions after each screening where members of the audience can discuss the films with persons recovering from mental health issues, caregivers or mental health professionals. The moderators include television presenter Anita Kapoor and Singaporean theatre actress Noorlinah Mohamed.

“I didn’t want people to walk out of the room thinking it’s just another film festival,” said Ms Tan. “The movie gives you an idea of what a family or individual goes through, but it doesn’t really say what we can do as individuals to look out for signs in ourselves, family members, friends — what we can do to support one another.”

Having the panelists there will allow filmgoers to also “hear true accounts”, which Ms Tan hopes will enhance the conversation about mental health.

While she wanted to price the tickets more affordably — they are S$18 each — she explained that they would not have been able to break even. Out of about 1,400 tickets available, they have sold 910 to date.

The opening film from the United States, No Letting Go — which is about a teenager struggling with mental illness as his mother fights to save him — has already sold out. Tickets for acclaimed Hong Kong drama Mad World, which stars Shawn Yue as a former financial analyst struggling with bipolar disorder, are also going fast.

Ms Tan hopes to continue organising the film festival after this year, adding that more corporate support and funding are required.

“It’s actually quite promising. A lot of people are approaching us to thank us. We didn’t expect so much buzz,” she said.

LET’S TALK ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH

While mental health issues have received more attention lately, the stigma still remains, Ms Tan said. Many people are also not educated about how to deal with loved ones suffering from such issues.

In a move to help the community, the President’s Challenge 2019, an annual community outreach and fundraising campaign, will focus on raising awareness of the needs of people with mental health issues this year.

Ms Tan said it is also heartening to see the growth of such conversation among young people, especially as more Singaporeans study or live overseas before returning home.

While the conversation around mental health continues to grow, she believes that art is a more effective medium for it, rather than “going into spaces and giving talks and lectures”.

“When you have talks and everything, it’s good and very factual, but less stimulating... to have a mixture of both is nice for the brain to exercise different parts of it,” she added.

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