Surviving childhood trauma: Singapore mental health advocate, 29, learns to love mum who has schizophrenia

Matt Oon (pictured), who has a degree in sociology, founded Acceset, a digital channel that lets people discuss and seek help anonymously for matters related to mental health. — Photo by Matt Oon
Matt Oon (pictured), who has a degree in sociology, founded Acceset, a digital channel that lets people discuss and seek help anonymously for matters related to mental health. — Photo by Matt Oon

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SINGAPORE, Aug 1 — An only child to a parent with schizophrenia, 29-year-old Matt Oon knows what it is like growing up in the shadows of mental illness.

He still remembers the years of uncertainty and stigma even though he was only around seven years old when his mother was diagnosed with the serious mental disorder, which affected her ability to distinguish between real and imagined experiences.

At the time, the stigma of being a mental health sufferer was really bad, he said.

“I was hushed into not speaking about my mum’s condition, as if it was something wrong. As a child, I didn’t know how to deal with it, and the shame created a psychological barrier and distance between my mum and I.”

Spurred by this experience, Oon is now a firm advocate of mental health support and awareness.

After graduating with a sociology degree in 2017, he founded Acceset (pronounced the same way as “asset”), which is a digital channel that lets people discuss and seek help anonymously for matters related to mental health.

It is one of seven agencies that form Safe Circle, a newly launched online platform that supports trauma survivors.

The other six, which have services catering to children, youth, mental health needs, include Boys’ Town, Campus PSY, Caregivers Alliance Limited, Limitless Singapore, Singapore Association for Mental Health and Singapore Children’s Society.

The majority of Acceset’s users are the youth. It also provides peer-support training in partnership with certified counsellors.

For his efforts, Oon received the Queen’s Young Leader’s Award in 2018.

Matt Oon (right) meeting Queen Elizabeth II when he received the Queen’s Young Leader’s Award in 2018. — Photo by Matt Oon
Matt Oon (right) meeting Queen Elizabeth II when he received the Queen’s Young Leader’s Award in 2018. — Photo by Matt Oon

He was one of two Singaporeans among 61 young people from Commonwealth countries who received the award, which is given to outstanding youth recognised by Queen Elizabeth II for transforming the lives of people in the community.

It was not easy for Oon to get to the stage where he is now. It took him years before he could openly talk about his own experience.

“I was so afraid of the repercussions of talking about it publicly that even when I received the Queen’s Young Leader’s Award, I told the reporter (who interviewed me) that my mum has depression rather than schizophrenia, thinking that this change of information would give more dignity and protection,” he admitted.

“I thought the public might not be able to accept it, and I was afraid that the extended family would think I am putting my mother and family in a bad light.”

Now, he has accepted that the truth needs to be told because he not only wants to raise awareness of trauma-informed care, but also to celebrate all the “good parts” of his mother’s life.

She works as a cleaner now and her condition, along with their mother-son relationship, have improved tremendously.

The childhood years

Oon’s mother, who used to work as a paralegal, was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was around seven years old.

Schizophrenia is a major psychotic illness that affects men and women equally, the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) states on its website. The person may have hallucinations such as hearing voices that do not exist, have paranoia or delusions of being followed or controlled, or they may display bizarre behaviour.

For Oon’s mother, she struggled to discern between what was real and not real, saw things that were not there and would talk or laugh to herself.

The condition took a toll on her memory and ability to function.

“My mum would cook something, go to sleep and forget about it. By the time I realised and turned off the stove, the pot would have burnt,” Oon recalled.

“To a low-resource family, it was added stress because it was a disruption to the normal daily routine.”

His father was a computer technician at the time and the family’s sole breadwinner.

“My dad would come home and say, ‘You need to be more alert, keep an eye out’. The stress that he carried, over time, it became a shared thing between us.”

Schizophrenia is a major psychotic illness that affects men and women equally. — Photo by Cottonbro/Pexels via TODAY
Schizophrenia is a major psychotic illness that affects men and women equally. — Photo by Cottonbro/Pexels via TODAY

Left mostly to his own devices, Oon learnt to be highly independent from a young age.

“At the time, I didn’t want to be at home. My routine revolved around being in childcare, playing football with friends, watching TV and then going to sleep.”

With both parents struggling with their own problems, there was no one he could confide to about his anxieties or who could help him make sense of why some people made hurtful remarks to him.

Recalling one bad experience, he said: “Coming from a poor family, I didn’t have a PlayStation game console so when my friend invited me to his home to play games. I was so excited and we played non-stop until 11pm.

“The boy’s mum eventually took a broom and literally forced me out of the house. She asked me, ‘Your mum never teach you basic manners?’.

“I felt hurt and angry that I had to learn these things by myself. I wasn’t angry with my parents — they had their own problems — but at being put in a situation that wasn’t in my control.”

The turning point

Things started to improve from his secondary school days when IMH, where his mother was seeking treatment, helped to find work for her.

She took on a cleaning job with a kind and compassionate employer, he said.

“The routine of going back to work helped her improve her mental health,” he added.

“Work gives my mum purpose. She can buy food, contribute to the household expenditure and has the resource to plan for the future.”

What he learnt to do

Over time and with advice from his maternal aunts, Oon recognised that he, too, had to dismantle his own psychological barriers.

“If I had held on to the hope of my mother’s ‘complete recovery’ from schizophrenia, I would never have been able to walk out of my childhood trauma. That would be an unrealistic expectation. I recognised that there were some things that I simply could not change,” he said.

“At the same time, I realised that there were still some things I could do. I did not have to subscribe to the shame anymore.

“I can start to give my mother love and support. I can start to work on our relationship.”

A stable and supportive relationship can help to improve a person’s ability to manage mental health conditions. — TODAY file photo
A stable and supportive relationship can help to improve a person’s ability to manage mental health conditions. — TODAY file photo

There is no cure for schizophrenia but the condition can be managed with medication and therapy.

After years of barely any communication, rebuilding the mother-son relationship was challenging and awkward at first.

“I didn’t know what to talk to her about because my mum is sometimes in her own world — but we have found a rhythm.

“From one-word replies, we now have longer one-minute conversations on the phone, for instance. She’d ask me what I want to eat and she’d buy it for me.

“We build little moments of positive experiences and interactions. She is stabler and looks happier now.”

Adverse childhood experiences

Trauma, Oon said, often comes from a private and intimate setting such as one’s home and the burden on the child can be immense.

In the absence of a supportive community, those who have experienced trauma may become “disassociated” from it, he said.

Unprocessed trauma may delay the healing process or lead to adverse outcomes later in life.

“The more I learn about trauma-informed care, the more I understand that it is important to talk about it. I no longer think I am putting my family in a bad light by facing up to my fears,” Oon said.

“The condition doesn’t negate all the good parts of her life.

“She has found purpose in her work. She is also a very kind person. I think she has been amazing and has found ways to work, contribute to and integrate into society.”

When children and teenagers are exposed to situations that may cause trauma, they experience what some experts term “adverse childhood experience”.

In a study on the topic, originally conducted by the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and healthcare group Kaiser Permanente, people who have had exposure to at least one adverse childhood experience are more likely to develop mental and physical health issues later in adulthood, compared to those who have had no prior exposure.

The impact of adverse experiences during childhood is greater when it occurs at an early age, when the perpetrator is a trusted figure. — Photo by Portraitor/Pixabay
The impact of adverse experiences during childhood is greater when it occurs at an early age, when the perpetrator is a trusted figure. — Photo by Portraitor/Pixabay

A similar study conducted in Singapore as part of the 2016 Singapore Mental Health Study, led by IMH, saw similar results.

Almost two in three — or 64 per cent — of Singapore’s adult population have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience in the first 18 years of their lives.

In the study, adverse childhood experiences were categorised into abuse, neglect and household challenges.

Household challenges may include substance abuse or mental illness in the household, parental separation or divorce, and living with an abused mother or female guardian.

Oon said that the impact of adverse experiences during childhood is greater when it occurs at an early age, when the perpetrator is a trusted figure or when the victim is not believed, silenced, blamed or shamed.

However, it is important to note that an adverse childhood experience “does not mean the end of the world”.

“Emerging science and research on positive childhood experiences show promising results in mitigating the negative impact of adverse childhood experience.

“Routines, such as investing in healing relationships and interactions, and investing in self-reflection, can help,” he said.

“From my own experience, I have learnt that love and trusting relationships help with the healing.”

Moving on, Oon hopes to be able to keep discussions on trauma as well as other mental health-related issues going.

“The goal is to nurture a trauma-informed community in schools, workplaces and homes, and build the psychological defence of the nation.” — TODAY

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