Mindset College helping bipolar disorder patients get back on their feet one course at a time
Former music teacher Grace Tang Yeuk-ha was floored by the condition but after treatment she now helps others get on the road to recovery
Grace Tang Yeuk-ha had never experienced a mood swing as severe as the one she had when she was 27 years old – one that lasted for months.
Not long after that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental condition that leads to periods of intense emotion ranging from severe depression to an extreme elevated mood.
“I had episodes of severe depression for months at a time. I lost my motivation to do anything. I was sleep deprived and only got out of bed when I absolutely had to, such as to go to the bathroom or to eat.”
That was followed by a few months of elevated moods – and a sudden desire to shop.
“After months of being down in the dumps, I turned into a shopaholic. I would overspend and buy things I didn’t need. I’d buy clothes then put them on immediately without any sense of control.”
A year before her mental health issues surfaced, Tang, 37, started work as a music instructor at a primary school, a job which came with countless hours of overtime and stacks of paperwork.
Her busy work schedule led her to neglect her mental health. As a perfectionist, Tang was reluctant to accept anything less than superb, she says, which steered her life into a downward spiral.
“The working pressure of juggling teaching my classes and conducting after school caused me to become overloaded. I was sleep deprived and one day, all of a sudden, I couldn’t go to work,” the former teacher says.
“I quit my job. I didn’t want to face my students because I felt my life was hopeless and for the next six months, I was glued to my bed, questioning why I was still alive. I would get up once or twice a day just to go to the bathroom or to eat.”
At first Tang did not notice there was a problem, and it was months later that she accepted she needed help and medication.
“Some of my friends and my secondary school teacher noticed I was suffering. She tried to talk to me about my recovery. Soon I realised how much my emotional problems were affecting life, including insomnia and a loss of appetite. That’s when I was convinced to seek help from a professional.”
After her diagnosis, she was sent to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. A year later upon discharge, she was admitted to the Hostel for the Moderately Mentally Handicapped in Sha Tin which is run by the New Life Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association.
It soon occurred to her that her chances of returning to the education field were slim.
“I felt hopeless, as if my life had no meaning any more. No one was going to want to hire someone with a mental disorder and no parent wants their children to be taught by someone who can’t even manage her own emotions. That would only expose them to danger.”
But that reality did not dim her passion to teach.
After getting back on her feet, Tang quickly put matters in her own hands and she is now able to nurture those who are undergoing similar problems and to support them in the recovery journey.
“As someone who has recovered from a mental health challenge, I want others to know that it’s okay to be beaten down, it’s not our fault that the stress from our everyday lives overwhelms us. Over the years, I have shared my take on mental wellness to secondary school students as well as those who are currently going through the same path I did.”
This was all made possible through Mindset College, an institution that aims to provide recovery oriented courses for enhancing the well-being of people in recovery and their families, professionals and people concerned with their mental health.
They include the promotion of self advocacy, rebuilding the foundation of their lives, staying healthy and peer development.
“We understand that these are just talented individuals who fell victim – maybe they are accountants, graphic designers or like Grace, teachers, and to help them, society must allow them back into the community,” Esther Wong Wing-han, executive director of Mindset, explains.
She says that for patients to recover, it is important for them to pick themselves up and not just rely on medication. “The fact that they fell ill doesn’t mean that they are any less worthy as a person than anyone else like you and me.”
The group organised a three-year project called the Peer Support Training Programme in 2013,
to allow those who are in recovery to use their experiences to support others in their mental health wellness process.
Trainees must undergo 36 hours of basic training and 12 hours of skill training. There are seven peer support workers employed in hostels, sheltered workshops and halfway houses to use their own experience as a teaching curriculum to guide others in the process of recovery.
“One thing we recognised is that the lived experience is very helpful because they can share their stories and comments, and what else can be done to help make the process more comfortable, and all of this information is coming from a very credible source,” she adds.
The school has put together an average of 160 different courses annually, with more than 600 participants from all walks of life.
What is bipolar disorder?
The illness is more than just having ups and downs. It is a chronic disease that causes patients to experience roller coaster-like mood fluctuations over time. Patients may be exposed to different degrees of mood swings. Sometimes, there may only be temporary irritability, with patients mainly depressed most of the time. These situations can be easily misdiagnosed and identified as unipolar depression.
What are the symptoms?
Those who suffer from the mood disorder will show signs of mania and depression, according to Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority. With mania, there is a feeling of continued excitement, restlessness, excessive self-confidence and arrogance, or easily getting angry. That is followed by a period of depression, including a loss of interest in everything, slow reactions, easily distracted, fatigue, pessimism as well as antisocial.
How many suffer from the disorder in Hong Kong?
It is estimated that for every 20 Hongkongers, one is identified to have the disorder, according to the Hong Kong Mood Disorders Centre of Chinese University’s medical school. It conducted a survey in 2007, showing that females are more vulnerable to the illness – with the prevalence rate of 1.89 times that of a male.
What is the treatment?
Doctors will suggest both medication and psychological therapy to help sufferers stay emotionally stable. Prescriptions vary depending on the individual’s condition. There is also the possibility of needing multiple medications, including mood stabilisers, antidepressants, anti-anxiety pills and antipsychotics. As for therapy, it is believed that cognitive behavioural treatment can help in building up mutual trust between the professional and the patient, which is helpful in easing uncontrollable problematic behaviour while smoothing stress.