by Izyan Nadzirah

‘We need to move away from the conversation of “it is all in your mind” to “let us consult a specialist”. The community needs to understand that mental illness is a product of physical changes in the body too. Like other chronic illnesses such as cancer and diabetes caused by a lack of or excess of something in the body, mental illness is a condition of an imbalance in neurochemicals.

‘All of us probably have a friend who is struggling with a mental illness,whether we are aware of it or not. Some of us will encourage them to go out, to make more friends, to remain positive and happy. That is all well and good, but we need to start addressing the importance of getting medical help too,’ emphasised Stephen Hwang (RI’11).

Together with Nicholas Eu, Jon Tan and Jonathan See, the team of four decided early last year to run the Sahara Race in May 2016 to raise funds for the Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH), the oldest community mental health agency in Singapore.

The team trained often and trained hard, stimulating the conditions of the race as much as possible.

‘In our fourth year of medical school we were exposed to the world of psychological medicine. We learnt about the negativity surrounding mental illnesses, the lack of awareness on mental health, and the general taboo and traditional beliefs to explain away mental illnesses.’

Upon many conversations with different stakeholders such as hospital patients, associations encouraging mental awareness and providing rehabilitation like SAMH, and friends and family, we decided that there is a strong need to increase education on mental health.

Many of us know the statistics on cancer [1 in 4] but did you know that 1 in 10 get depression at least once in their lives? Like any other illness, early detection is crucial for effective treatment.

In Singapore though, most only seek help when the illness is advanced and it is not possible to keep it under wraps. Sadly, even the media portrays mental illnesses in a negative light because often those that make it to the news are individuals with untreated and advanced mental conditions who are unable to operate normally in social surroundings,’ shared Jonathan.

The group of four aims to race a modest amount of $50,000 by September 2016, and since January, they have already reached half their target! Aiming to cross 250km of a climate vastly different from Singapore’s, the four medical undergraduates have trained hard for the race, both physically and mentally. Between raising awareness through conversations and social media, fundraising, and long distance training with simulated conditions, they have also spoken to Singaporeans who have completed similar races or challenges.

When asked why they chose to compete in one of four annual dessert races, they shared that they were intrigued by the hardship and challenge of the race. In the Sahara race, only shelter and water is provided. They have to carry their essentials on their backs and fight the weather elements while exercising good strategy for each day in the week-long race.

In a way, the challenges they face in the Sahara race, one of the hardest and harshest international races ever, is similar to the journey a person with mental illness goes through. The long distance and rough terrain to be covered during the race can be likened to the long and demanding journey that people with mental illnesses face as they tackle their illness, and the load of essentials they carry throughout their race is similar to the burden of medical costs, social stigma and the inability to function properly in a social setting.

At every check-in stage, the team posted their reflections on their Facebook page detailing the successes and challenges they had overcome thus far. On the next page, we feature two of their updates up to press time.




Success! The team completed the Sahara Race with minimal injury.

The Sahara Race took place from the 1st to 7th May in the Namibia dessert this year due to civil unrest surrounding the Sahara. This race is part of the 4 Deserts Race Series widely recognised as the most prestigious outdoor footrace series in the world. Central to the 4 Deserts Race Series is its ethos to support medical and education charities, including fundraising for humanitarian aid when natural disaster occurs in the countries where the races are held. Additionally, competitors are also encouraged to raise funds for charities personal to them, and millions of dollars have been raised by 4 Deserts competitors through its events.

© 4 Deserts