Singapore social entrepreneur whose mum has schizophrenia now helps students cope with depression
Acceset is a web portal that facilitates anonymous letter exchange; a platform where students can share their anxieties anonymously, without being judged...
Oon Tian Sern, founder of mental health platform, Acceset, did not have an easy childhood. His mum has schizophrenia, and growing up, he had to deal with emotional and physical neglect, and cope with unkind and nasty remarks.
When he graduated in Sociology from Singapore Management University, he knew he wanted to do something about removing the stigma associated with mental health illness.
He founded Acceset, a web portal that facilitates anonymous letter exchange; a platform where students can share their anxieties anonymously, without being judged.
In recognition of his efforts to make a difference to people’s lives, Mr Oon has been recognized as a Queen’s Young Leader and Generation T honoree.
“I am hopeful that an anonymous system that provides quality peer support can make a positive impact on those who would otherwise keep problems to themselves.
“A distressed student can write anonymously and it will be supported by an anonymous student who has been trained and a qualified counsellor, who moderates to ensure the safety of the letter reply before it is sent back to the student,” Mr Oon tells theAsianparent.
Here is Mr Oon sharing more about Acceset, the inspiration behind it, and how students and youth in Singapore can benefit from it.
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Acceset: Fighting depression among youth in singapore
theAsianparent: What was the inspiration behind founding a platform like Acceset?
Oon Tian Sern: My reason for wanting to see an idea like Acceset succeed is because I want the best possible support system for any person who is having a hard time and is feeling isolated for various reasons.
Starting Acceset is an opportunity that came from volunteering with Health Promotion Board. A youth-led project that they funded for 10 years (Audible Hearts) attempted to create an anonymous safe space for youth to share problems with trained youth pen pals.
I happily served as a volunteer for 3 years and oversaw 1000 cases because I really believed in the mission. I was one of those who would have used the service had I known it to exist when I was a teenager.
I was especially gutted when the service has to close down for various reasons. What was especially heart wrenching is having our pen pals write to each distressed user to let them know the platform was going to close down.
Some of them had been writing to us for years. That was the impetus that got me thinking on how to recreate and build a better portal, and to be financially sustainable, because I wanted to give the best for my users, to keep improving and always be around, to be able to find our own money to keep going.
Acceset is actually a combination of the word ‘accept’ and ‘reset’. Pronounced as “asset”, it is a reminder of our social mission, to empower people to accept care and reset lives.
In this mission, my firm belief is that if we want to destigmatize mental health issues, we have to involve people not just to speak up about mental health issues, but give the right skills so that they are able to be active providers of care, as well as trust the ecosystem to share their problems with, when they need them.
I may not have experienced depression, but I am someone who has adverse childhood experience. My childhood has been characterized by some kind of emotional and physical neglect and while I was lucky that through singing and soccer, I found my kakis, I also know from research that some of my peers engage in self-harm as an attempt to cope.
In fact, 1 in 3 youth in Singapore engage in self-harm (based on a YouGov Survey).
Self-harm is a response and attempt to cope from intense feeling of fear, anxiety, sadness or anger. It is a concern as, without other means to relieve emotion, or connect with others, it has the potential to go down a darker path for some of the most vulnerable, either in the form of suicidal ideation or further isolation from people.”
theAsianparent: You mentioned that your mum has schizophrenia. What were some of the challenges you faced growing up (as a child), and later on, in adulthood?
Oon Tian Sern: I believe what was most challenging is the stigma and lack of awareness around mental health issues. Problems hit us the hardest when we could not even make sense and put a name to what we were experiencing.
It was not an easy situation for me, because my family was extremely busy with its own challenges, and I was left alone to grow up.
I didn’t have as much guidance as I would have wished for, and even though I benefit from it today, the growing up years were rough. There were many unkind and nasty encounters, and you learnt about mannerism through the criticism of your peers or other supervising adults.
Yet, having experienced unkind remarks from others, I was also determined not to pass that on to someone else. I learnt to be a non-judgmental and kind person, to myself, to others, and later on, to my peers and colleagues.
It has served me well, and it is one of the core values that I depended on to overcome the challenges that I faced in life.
theAsianparent: How does Acceset work? What sort of counselling and training is provided?
Oon Tian Sern: It is extremely challenging for professional counsellors to attend to a large community of affected users. The low counsellor to student ratio in schools (1:1000 in secondary schools or 1:3000 in polytechnics) does not help with destigmatizing mental health issues.
Our platform is a place for people to trade anonymous digital letters. This platform is accessible to organizations that work with us to provide this service to their community.
It is currently being used by schools that partner with Acceset to roll out online peer support initiatives to keep their campuses safe.
A distressed student can write anonymously and it will be supported by an anonymous student who has been trained and a qualified counsellor, who moderates to ensure the safety of the letter reply before it is sent back to the student.
What we focus on apart from providing a platform is training to ensure that there is an informed community who are able to respond appropriately to disclosed issues, which are often sensitive, delicate issues and where the users are highly vulnerable.
The last thing we want is to cause more harm than good in the process of helping, and we believe the best way to control for that is quality training as well as for non-professional befrienders to partner with professionals to craft letter replies to support distressed users.
Our model looks at meaningful direct involvement of youth to support their peers. Only through their involvement can we build a large movement of trained and informed youth who can benefit from anonymous and safe online peer support as well as contribute to effect change in destigmatizing mental health issues.
However, to ensure the safety of every message that gets send through to the distressed users, school counsellors provide the additional supervisory check to ensure quality and safety before it is sent out to the student in need of support.
We are running a telegram digital empathy workshop with 110 Singapore Polytechnic students, and selected students will receive further e-befriender training and work with school counsellors to support 3000 students when school starts in Mid-October.
Students will be trained in two workshops. The first workshop, helping seekers to accept care, focuses on how to use a structured approach to attend to the feelings and psychological needs of the student.
The second workshop, training e-befrienders to reset lives, focuses on training e-befrienders how to identify and affirm strength of seekers in a trauma-informed manner and how not to cause harm as they try to help.
theAsianparent: What happens when you know that the depressed person is in real danger of self harm? Would you alert the authorities?
Oon Tian Sern: We are an online platform and there will be challenges in verifying simply through text whether a depressed person is in danger of self-harm.
However, what we equip our e-befrienders with, is to spot signs of danger that may come along with a person who is thinking about self-harm.
For example, they may experience rapid adjustment and change to their daily functions such as their sleep, appetite or social interaction. They may have suicidal ideation.
What our e-befrienders will do with professional moderators is to work out a plan that will keep the person safe while also explore the possibilities with the user and encourage them to seek professional help.
We will explain why the professional help can benefit the users, but it would be the choice of users to decide whether they are ready to reach out for help.
There will be protocols to escalate the case to the attention of relevant authorities, but we are also mindful that the distressed user will be informed at every step of the way, as trust is paramount and important to our community.
theAsianparent: What advice do you have for people suffering from depression?
Oon Tian Sern: It is a challenge to experience what you are going through.
Sometimes, it is not a choice that is up to us to make, sometimes it feels like the choice of our well-being was decided for us. It can feel very isolating and discouraging.
A sense of connection and a caring community is really what we hope to bring along to shine light on the darkness that one may experience. What I would urge anyone who is having a challenging time is to give our community a chance and share what he/she is comfortable with.
Having a space to vent out one’s feelings and thoughts is a process of healing that we hope to provide as a source of comfort for those who are suffering.
We can never fully understand but the least we can communicate to anyone who is feeling down and out is that their stories matter, and that there is a community who is well-trained and ready to listen and give attention to the issues that others often avoid or dismiss.