From cracking under the strain of being expected to excel, to the fear of being 'marked' as unemployable – four working adults share their stories of battling major depression.
Mr Chris Tan found that his depression acted up when he tried returning to corporate life. He was fired, and his career came to a standstill.
SINGAPORE: Outwardly, his wife and two young sons are his sources of joy. He seems a regular family man when he's with them. What is less apparent is that Mr Mak Kean Loong struggles to feel emotions like happiness.
“In the past few years, I think I’ve never even felt that emotion,” said the bespectacled 38-year-old, who speaks with the numbed air of a tired man.
At first, they all thought he was “just becoming extra introverted”. It was, in fact, his descent into depression. And just a year ago, he came close to leaving them without a husband and father.
"I didn’t tell my wife," he said. "If you want to end your life, why would you tell someone close to you, right?"
Mr Tan first developed depression a year before his first son was born.
“The first part of the process was to bring my boys and my wife out for a good meal, for them to have something to remember me by. I felt nothing but pain.”
He didn't go through with the suicide. But soon after, through a "mutual agreement" with his employer, he quit his job as an infrastructure engineer with a technology firm to focus on his recovery.
And it's that loss of that part of him that sits bitterly.
It does hurt when I see people in office clothes. I know I’m currently not a part of that. That identity has been taken away.
About 7 per cent of Singapore’s workforce has a history of mental illness. The Singapore Mental Health Study 2010 found that Major Depressive Disorder affected about 159,000 adults here during their lifetime.
In cases like Mr Mak's, the illness makes holding on to a career a stressful battle – one that for some necessitates putting on a mask at work, or facing rejection from employers. In the documentary Facing Depression, four Singaporeans candidly share their experiences.
WATCH: One family man's demons (5:58). Catch the full episode at this link.
PERCEIVED AS A 'HEADACHE' AND 'WEAK'
One of the main battles they must fight is perceived stigma among employers.
This was illustrated to Mr Mak last year, when he went public with his illness by blogging and drawing comics online about depression.
He thought sharing his problems would get across a message about what depression is and how to help people suffering from it. But an ex-boss warned him that if his industry knew of his depression, he would be “marked”.
There are people who’ll say, ‘You have depression – are you sure it’s not going to come back? I don’t think I want to employ you.’
“Or, ‘you need to go and see the doctor more often – I think I’ll pay you less’,” said Mr Mak squarely.
Mr Lim Yufan, who has had depression for half of his life, knows what it is like to live in fear of judgement.
“Besides my first job, I didn’t tell my employers and colleagues in my subsequent jobs that I had depression,” said the 30-year-old. “I was afraid that it would lead to things like them not being able to trust me to do work.”
Mr Lim grappled with depression even in school.
Even so, his depression did affect his work: He had to take leave frequently and was unable to stay in a job for long, some as briefly as a month.
Half of his bosses, he said, showed that they were not understanding of depression, his reason for resigning. “One of them said, ‘Yufan, you’re a total headache. You gave me such a headache because of this.'"
Underlining the effect bosses can have – whether or not they know an employee has depression – L P Clinic consultant psychiatrist Pauline Sim said: “If you have a demanding boss with a perfectionist trait who can only focus on negativity and cannot empathise, then it’s very difficult for the individuals.”
Dr Pauline Sim with Mr Lim.
In Mr Mak’s case, his supervisors allowed him “time and space to recover” – a few months.
“But as a new hire and with the extended time that my recovery would take, we came to a mutual agreement that perhaps it would be better for me to quit,” he said.
Stigma does not start nor stop with employers, however. The national Mind Matters study in 2015 by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) found that people with Major Depressive Disorder are more likely to be perceived as “weak not sick”.