Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Maids trained to be counsellors to peers

NUS-HOME initiative teaches them to spot stress, call for help in bid to improve mental health
By Kok Xing Hui, The Straits Times, 11 Apr 2016

Some maids in Singapore are being trained to recognise signs of mental stress and to offer help, in a move to improve mental health support for foreign domestic workers here.

The aim is to help distressed domestic workers who have mental stress symptoms that go unidentified, or do not know where to go for help.

By next month, 39 Filipino foreign domestic workers would have completed the training, an initiative by the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), a migrant worker welfare group.

One participant, Ms Robina Lavato, 43, for instance, now knows what to do if she spots symptoms of depression, such as being withdrawn and losing sleep, in her friends. She will plan activities they enjoy to cheer them up.

If the situation deteriorates and the friend talks about suicide, Ms Lavato knows it is time for professional help and she has the numbers to dial.

"The idea here is for them to serve as a bridge between the professional mental health community and their own community," said the research initiative's principal investigator, Dr Keng Shian-Ling, assistant professor at the Department of Psychology at NUS.

A study by HOME last year found that more than one in five of the 546 maids from Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar polled had psychological distress. This was based on a measurement of nine markers, including depression and anxiety.

Filipino domestic workers fared the worst, with 36 per cent experiencing mental distress, compared with 11 per cent in the Indonesian workers and 26 per cent among those from Myanmar.

Researchers decided to train Filipino maids as "paracounsellors" as they seemed the most vulnerable, said Dr Keng.

More than 200 maids signed up for the training but there are spaces for only 40.

Last month, clinical psychologist trainees Marian Wong and Sudev Suthendran started training the women, who were divided into two groups. The trainees undergo four three-hour sessions conducted on Sundays.


The first group completed their training on April 3 and the second group started yesterday.

To gauge the effectiveness of the training, researchers will check if the domestic workers can retain the information, and whether a better understanding of mental health improves their personal mental state.

If the training proves effective, HOME aims to develop a peer counselling service and will look for registered counsellors or psychologists who can volunteer to supervise these peer counsellors.

During the training, the women are also taught to identify and restructure negative thoughts.

Trainer Ms Wong cited the case of a foreign domestic worker who felt she was a terrible mother.

"We got her to look at evidence of her not being a good mother, and evidence that does not support that thought.

"We teach them questions to ask their peers so they will have more balanced thoughts," she said.

Ms Lavato, who volunteers her time to man HOME's helpline, said she signed up to learn more about how to help her peers, especially where to refer them for help.

"I thought the most useful part of the training was learning about depression and abuse, and self-soothing exercises to improve moods," she said.

Ensure work-life balance for maids

We applaud the initiative by the National University of Singapore and Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics to train domestic workers to be peer counsellors, in a bid to improve the mental health of foreign domestic workers (FDWs) ("Maids trained to be counsellors to peers"; Monday).

This is a service gap that the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training (FAST) has identified, from managing our 24-hour helpline for FDWs over the years.

About 40 per cent of calls received by the FAST helpline since 2013 are from FDWs who are distressed and experiencing some form of depression or loneliness.

However, besides ensuring that FDWs have access to peer-counselling services, there must also be other support services to complement the peer-counselling effort.

At FAST, we conduct a bi-monthly befrienders service for distressed and lonely FDWs. They get to mingle with trained and experienced FDW mentors.

These "big sisters" provide collegial and emotional support through counselling, group work and confidence-building activities.

Beyond this, the FDWs are encouraged to sign up for our hobby classes, fitness programmes and talks (for example, on stress) held at the FDW clubhouse.

These activities provide a much-needed outlet for the FDWs to relax and socialise with other FDWs on their rest days.

About 60 per cent of distressed and lonely FDWs who called our helpline have joined our befrienders service, and they are now actively participating in our club activities on their rest days.

They are now happier and well adjusted, and enjoy a better quality of life.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. This saying is true of our FDWs, too.

We urge employers to ensure that their FDWs enjoy balance in their work and life, so that they can remain happy and physically and mentally well while working in Singapore.

Seah Seng Choon
Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training
ST Forum, 14 Apr 2016

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