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Beating the blues

Exercise, sunshine and a supportive network of friends can help strengthen your mental wellbeing
by Derek Rodriguez

Girl burying her head in her knees

When life gives you lemons, get some sun. And while you are at it, keep a healthy diet and stay in touch with friends. These healthy practices help to prevent you from being overwhelmed by stress when you encounter a difficult situation in school or at home from time to time.

“Exercise gives you a sense of accomplishment and stimulates the release of endorphins. Having a listening ear in friends will also be crucial when you need support from those around you,” advises Dr Lim Choon Guan, who teaches the NTU undergraduate module, Are You OK? Mental Health in Singapore.

And don’t be afraid to reach out when you’re feeling blue, says Mr Ang Teck Ee, a counsellor at NTU’s University Wellbeing Centre. “It is normal to feel down from time to time, but when the negative feeling persists over a prolonged period, it may develop into depression.”

He adds that symptoms of depression range from physical indicators like headaches and stomachaches to feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and sadness.

Many sufferers describe feeling “empty”, much like the victims of the soul-sucking Dementors in Harry Potter, which were incidentally based on J K Rowling’s own experience with depression.

According to Dr Lim, it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the cause of depression.

Dr Lim, a psychiatrist at the Institute of Mental Health, says: “Often, depression is triggered by a combination of genetic, psychological and environmental factors. The risk of depression is higher if there is an affected family member. Studies have also suggested it may be associated with having too little serotonin, a neurotransmitter, in the brain. Also, stressful events such as breakups or high academic demands sometimes lead to depression.”

To get more serotonin, one is advised to have at least 20 minutes of sunlight a day, so staying cooped up indoors playing computer games or watching dramas online is not much of a mood lifter.

In a survey done by NTU students Eunice Goh, Shahirah Azman, Tan Deyong and Tan Wei Qing in 2015, 37 percent of young people aged 18 to 25 indicated that they would not tell anyone if they had depression. On top of this, 54 percent believed most people think it is a sign of weakness.

Prof Chong Siow Ann from the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine pointed out that “mental illness is all too often associated with personal weakness, unpredictability, unreliability, unproductivity and violence”.

But even successful people are not immune to bouts of blues. In 1998, Kjell Magne Bondevik, who was then Prime Minister of Norway, took three weeks off work to recover from a depressive episode, and remained popular on his return to office. More recently, celebrities like Dwayne Johnson and Cara Delevingne have revealed their own battles with depression.

You don’t walk alone

Chances are, there are people around you who are suffering. At NTU, help is at hand with a campus community approach to student wellbeing. At the schools, the Associate Chair for students, aided by pastoral care managers, look out for the mental wellbeing of students. In the halls of residence, there are Hall Fellows and Faculty-in-Residence on hand to help.

Suggests Mr Ang: “If you have a friend in need, acknowledge his or her feelings and show your concern. Listen without interrupting and don’t rush to offer solutions. You may feel that your friend’s problem is trivial, but remember, everyone reacts to issues differently.”

Adds Prof Kwok Kian Woon, Associate Provost (Student Life) and co-investigator of the Singapore Mental Health Study 2016: “Your peers will appreciate that little bit of care and concern for them. Even a simple gesture of support for someone going through difficulties will go a long way.”

Where to seek help

If you are not coping well in university or face other troubles that seem overwhelming, you can approach the University Wellbeing Centre for guidance.

Even if you don’t have immediate concerns, the counsellors there can help you to identify your inner needs and aspirations. Or speak to the student volunteers from the NTU Peer Helping Programme at the centre.

Book a time for a brief chat at or call 6790 4462. There’s also a 24-hour hotline that you can reach at 1800 221 4444 (Samaritans of Singapore).