Their kids took their own lives, but these bereaved mothers have turned grief into support for other youth living with mental illness in Singapore.
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Elaine Lek lost her 17-year-old son to suicide in 2018. In memory of Zen, Elaine and her husband started the Zen Dylan Koh Fund in partnership with Singapore-based non-profit organisation Limitless.
Started in 2016 by Asher Low and his friends, Limitless aims to give each young person the chance to fulfil his or her potential. It engages youth aged 12 to 25 years with services that include counselling, group therapy, case work and social activities.
“I was only five minutes away from the hotel to the house, but it was the longest run of my life. ” says suicide survivor Elaine Lek, her voice quivering as she recounts the fateful morning of 28 September 2018, when her eldest son Zen Dylan Koh took his life in his college dormitory in Melbourne, Australia.
When she arrived at the scene, the paramedics were attempting to resuscitate Zen. He was duly whisked to the hospital, where he fought for his life for three days.
“By the third day, the doctors told me and my husband that there’s a very slim chance that Zen will pull through,” says Elaine. “I thanked him for choosing me as his mum for 17 years and 11 months… I saw tears rolling down his cheeks.”
Zen passed away that same night, with family and friends by his side. To honour him and his desire to help people, Elaine and her husband donated his organs.
“Zen took his own life,” says Elaine, “But he gave six back to six lives in Melbourne. He lives on in them.”
In the wake of Zen’s death, as Elaine searched for meaning behind her family’s tragic loss, she found an answer on his phone; he had written about wanting to be a psychologist.
“This gives me the idea of what I can do to find purpose in life for him and for me. And that’s when my husband and I decided to set up the Zen Dylan Koh Fund with Limitless,” says Elaine.
The Fund provides free counselling for disadvantaged youths who fall into three categories.
These are children whose family cannot afford to pay the high cost of therapy, or who have parents who would not understand and hence would prefer not to know, because of stigma. The third group includes those whose families are in denial and refuse to pay for their kid to speak with a professional.
Limitless Co-founder Asher Low, who himself has recovered from depression, says he relates to what youth are going through: “There are so many youths out there struggling and they have nowhere to go.”
Based in Singapore, the non-profit reaches out to youth aged 12-25 years experiencing mental health concerns, providing support through therapy, counselling, social activities, and group work.
Asher had started Limitless with some friends and wanted to focus on three areas - poverty, social exclusion and mental health, but soon decided to shift attention to the latter.
“When we opened our doors...we realised that very often if youth come in, even for a social exclusion issue, they get bullied, they have issues with their parents, it’s a BGR (boy-girl relationship) issue, it’s a school issue, underlying all that is a mental health condition.”
One in seven Singaporeans have experienced a mental disorder at some point in their lives, according to a study spearheaded by the Institute of Mental Health.
Depression remains the most common mental disorder, with one in 16 people in Singapore having the condition in their lifetime.
“There’s a misconception that mental illness or depression only strikes kids from dysfunctional families. It's so not true,” notes Elaine. “Zen comes from a loving family. He had everything he ever wanted in his life. And we have such a close bond. And yet he has depression. And we lost him to suicide.”
Last year, the number of people in Singapore who took their lives increased by 10 per cent. Suicide is the leading cause of death for those aged 10 to 29 years.
Jenny Teo’s 20-year-old son, Josh, had wrestled with depression and first attempted suicide following a break-up. After leaving the hospital, he retreated further into his own world, isolating himself in his room, immersed in the make-believe universe of computer games. Jenny reckons it was his way to distract himself and to cope with his mental and emotional demons.
“There are many reasons that can cause a person to go into depression,” explains Jenny. “In the case of my son, he found the education system very challenging.”
She adds, “I also don’t deny there was a toxic family situation, which he had to deal with, and relationship issues.”
Several months after Josh’s first suicide attempt, Jenny found him unconscious in the study early one morning. But it was too late, Jenny could only hold on to her son’s lifeless body, as she waited for the ambulance and police to arrive.
“I feel like I’ve been to hell and back. I felt very strongly that I didn’t want my son’s death to be in vain.”
Jenny has found purpose in creating awareness about mental illness and suicide prevention. This has included sharing Josh’s story with the public and giving a talk to caregivers of people living with a mental illness.
“Caregivers themselves need to be educated. Especially if you have to deal with a situation where there's a potential suicide,” says Jenny.
“It would have been very helpful for me to be able to talk to someone, who could support me and give me advice on how to manage and handle this situation.
“Being able to confide in another caregiver, who's also going through the same thing. That feeling you’re not alone, it gives you strength,” adds Jenny.
One year later, Elaine’s emotions remain raw: “Grief takes its toll, not just physically, but emotionally,” she says. “For me, I am still struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. I get a lot of flashbacks and anxiety.”
But she says in order to respect her “memory of Zen”, she has made an effort to grieve healthily.
The most significant step was to forgive herself and the people she felt could have helped prevent Zen’s death, but did not. Instead she wants her experience to be a cautionary tale for others.
To youth, she urges, “If a friend tells you they are going to attempt suicide, take it seriously. Do something, or tell a figure of authority who might be able to help. Don’t ignore the situation.”
As for dealing with medical practitioners, Elaine advises parents: “Before allowing your child to consume any medication, do your research. Or get a second opinion, if possible. Don’t trust your doctor unquestionably. They can make mistakes too.”
Elaine has since transformed her sorrow and anger into something positive, including advocating for the end of stigma. Exacerbated by societal discrimination and prejudice, stigma stops children from getting support, and parents from helping them.
“There is a lot of denial in society,” she says. “Suicide and depression is something that society don't want to talk about....I want to break the taboo.”
Explains Elaine, “You need to love your child unconditionally. They’re struggling because they can’t help it. It’s an illness.
“They need treatment. Don’t judge them. Don’t be ashamed. Don’t think that your child is trying to seek attention or that they will grow out of it.
“Don’t make it a hush-hush thing...If you are not open, how are you going to encourage your child to speak about it, or come to you for help.”
Asher of Limitless agrees with the need for acceptance: “They're experiencing a disease and they need support. Don't go in judgmental. Go in with love. It's really a question of, “Hey, can I help you? Can I be there for you? How would you like me to help you?” And that support means the world.”