In the spirit of International Women’s Day this month, Annabel Tan speaks to three empowering women who are advocating for change in causes they are passionate about.
Mental health is a topic close to Jennifer Fan’s heart, but also one she has kept under wraps for most of her life. After getting her MBA at Harvard Business School, Jennifer built a successful two decades-and-counting career in finance, with roles in investment banking, hedge funds and private equity under her belt. She is now the Head of Asia at a Swiss asset management company where she leads the business and its management. In 2013, she started volunteering with Caregivers Alliance Limited (CAL), a local non-profit organisation supporting caregivers of persons with mental health issues, but only began sharing her story publicly after two years.
Jennifer has been a caregiver from a young age as her father suffers from schizophrenia – a psychiatric disorder he has had his entire life, including through Jennifer’s childhood. “As a child, when friends know that you have this issue at home and your father’s not quite normal, you get stigmatised. I learnt from a very early age that I’m not going to tell my story; I’m just going to be as normal as possible. That carried on all the way into adulthood and even after I joined CAL,” she recounts.
A few years before she started volunteering, her father had a sudden and traumatic health experience that landed him in the intensive care unit for two weeks. He was having breathing difficulties believed to be triggered by the side effects of long-term medication for his mental illness.
“We almost lost him,” Jennifer says. “I prayed very hard for his recovery and told myself if he were to recover, I want to do something to express my gratitude of having him back.” When her father pulled through, she decided to volunteer with CAL, beginning with attending a three-month Caregiver Training Programme that helps caregivers better handle loved ones who are suffering from mental health issues.
Be the voice
The first time Jennifer shared her story in public was at CAL’s first fundraising gala dinner in 2015. “Although most of the audience were not really affected by mental health issues, I think the sharing of my story helped them relate better and put a face to the suffering that caregivers experience,” she says.
The event turned out to be a resounding success, raising more than $1 million. “That also continued to inspire not just me but other caregivers to tell their story. I realised I had to let myself be vulnerable in order for others to be brave enough to also come forward and spread awareness.”
Very often, according to Jennifer, the focus is on the mental health patients while the needs of caregivers are neglected. “It is a very forgotten segment of the society because the system forgets that caregivers experience a lot of stress and have to make a lot of sacrifices in order to look after their loved ones who have mental health issues,” she explains. “Having the lived experience myself, I know that it’s very difficult.”
She adds: “I’ve come across many cases where caregivers themselves are subjected to so much stress and trauma that they themselves become affected by mental health issues like depression or suicidal tendencies. This can result in a whole family breaking down when the surrounding support network crumbles.”
Now, eight years since Jennifer first joined CAL, she sits on the board as the vice-chair of the organisation. In addition to advocating for the cause, she has also helped CAL organise conferences with various representatives from the healthcare system, the government as well as from the insurance sector. “By connecting all these leaders of industry and touchpoints through this platform, we have a lot of synergistic discussions and ideation on how we can better handle mental health issues, which are becoming more and more poignant.”
The mother of two teenage girls is also on the board of Resilience Collective, a peer-to-peer platform focused on empowering peers, or persons with the lived experience of a mental health condition. It is managed by people who have experience in this area and offers support through recovery-focused education and a peer support network.
Giving and receiving
Ever since Jennifer opened up about her story, her fellow caretakers have told her that they are inspired by how she manages to live a normal life despite her challenges. While she feels she has been blessed, she emphasises that it is important for caregivers to understand three things: One, that caregiving is not a one-to-one support system, but has to be wider distributed. Two, caregivers have to take care of their own health. “When you’re in a plane, the emergency message is always to wear your oxygen mask first before you help a child with his or hers. Similarly, if you’re not in a good state of health, then you can’t be a caregiver and you can’t give the best care to your loved ones,” she elaborates.
Lastly, they need to know where to go for help. “At CAL, we give them a sense of empowerment through knowledge, education and a network of support,” says Jennifer. She has also personally benefited from having a support system of caregivers to share common experiences and discuss problems that doctors cannot address clinically. For example, how to manage loved ones who refuse or stop medication. “It’s situations like that where doctors are not going to tell you what to do. So how do you deal with them?”
Among caregivers, sharing stories and lessons becomes an important resource of information that cannot be found elsewhere. For her, it has been an unexpected part of her philanthropic journey. “When I first volunteered, I thought I was giving back. But with everything that I do, I receive so much in return. It becomes a virtuous cycle and gives me such a sense of purpose that I know it’s something I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.”
(Main and featured image credits: Photography: Joel Low | Art Direction: Audrey Chan | Hair: Benedict Choo | Make-up: Sophia Chia/Makeup Works | Photography Assistance: Alfie Pan)
This story first appeared in the March issue of Prestige Singapore.