It starts in the Sahara

It starts in the Sahara

7 days, 250km in the Sahara Desert.

Insane to many, but these 4 NUS students saw it as an opportunity.

My friend who ran the Gobi March last year introduced me to a group of 4 NUS Psychiatry students who were planning to run the Sahara Desert to raise funds and awareness for mental health in Singapore. The Sahara Race is part of the 4 Deserts challenge with races all over the world. I’m glad to say that they ran the race in April and all four of them successfully completed 250km in 7 days! I was very impressed and inspired by their mission and drive to bring awareness to mental health in Singapore and to break the stigma against mental health, especially since mental health is such a taboo topic here.

The four of them raced under a group called ‘Mental Muscle‘ which couldn’t be more apt, since running an ultra marathon is not just about physical fitness… a large part of it is having the mental resilience to carry on. In some ways, it mirrors an individual’s struggle with a mental illness. The road may be difficult to walk on, and often you feel like you cannot carry on any longer. You can’t see the end of the road, but you just have to keep going. But for the Sahara Race, there is an end to the pain. For people suffering from mental illnesses, the struggle continues. Like these guys, their experience cannot be easily summarised into mere words. You can never truly know what it’s like to suffer with a mental illness or run the Sahara Race until you have been through it yourself.

I hope that through this interview with these 4 inspiring students, you’ll have a better understanding about mental illnesses and that you will feel inspired to donate to Singapore Association of Mental Health to support their goal of raising $50,000 for Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH).

Without further ado, please meet Jon Tan, Jon See, Nicholas and Stephen 🙂


10 Questions with Mental Muscle

1. What inspired you guys to choose to run the Sahara Race over other options?
We saw articles of others who have completed similar races and read about their experiences during the race, and got to know about the 4 Deserts race series through these articles. We all loved the outdoors and thought it would be really fun to participate in such a race. As far as raising awareness goes, we felt that this sort of race would be great as it would be something unique and interesting that could reach out to a wider range of people, and figured why not do something extraordinary to bring attention to a cause we felt for?

The reason for the Sahara Race specifically was more of a practical concern, as the race period was during our medical elective period where we had some flexibility with planning out schedules. Other races were either too close to our exam period or during our final year itself, where it would have been impossible to take 2 weeks off to run the race.

2. Beyond its relevance to your field of study, what were the other reasons why you chose to focus on mental health in particular?
The misunderstanding and stigma surrounding mental health issues in Singapore was and still is a big problem. In a way it was not so much mental health being relevant to our field of study as much as it was that our field of study exposed us and opened our eyes to the problem. When thinking about other stereotypes and stigma in society, it is just a view that others had of somebody. But for stigma about mental illnesses, it is a view that we ourselves once had of somebody, a stigma that we once contributed to and now know to be wrong and misguided. The discovery that this stigma is so deeply rooted in us, our family and friends, and the rest of society is a jarring one, especially after seeing how it affects patients and their loved ones. In the hospitals we saw patients who only sought help after years of suffering in silence, as they were afraid of the repercussions of being labelled as having a mental illness. We saw patients whose families and friends abandoned them because they could no longer stand their behaviour and did not want to be associated with them. Even families who remained supportive suffered as neighbours and friends began avoiding the entire family. We witnessed the widespread and invasive effects of the stigma towards mental illnesses, and hoped to make a difference in whatever small way we could.

3. What was the toughest part of the Sahara Race experience?

My toughest challenge throughout this race was in stage 5 of the race during the long march. I recall that around the 30-40km mark of this 77km stage, my left ankle was in tremendous pain. Each time I planted a step, a jolt of pain would shoot up my leg and I felt terrible. Fortunately, when I reached the 40km checkpoint, my team saw that I was in tremendous pain and waited for me to heal up and rest my ankles before leaving again. Subsequently, in the next 30km, our team started to sing and chat together as we walked through the night. Our singing and conversations managed to take my mind off the pain, and it was truly with the company and support of my teammates that I managed to endure this toughest leg of the race. Support like this, from people around us is very crucial when we are at our lowest points, and this is also the support that we need to give people with mental illnesses, to help and support them when they are suffering relapses, when they are at their lowest points in life.

Personally, what I found challenging was the terrain and the length of time on the course. It required much concentration on every step we took as a misstep could result in an injury. Hence personally, I had to maintain the same focus throughout the course. Managing expectations was another. I remember on the 4th stage, where the whole course was marked as easy. The night before, as we looked at the course description, I remember letting my mental guard down, thinking it would be easy the next day, and hence would be a good time to focus less to rest for the 77km on stage 5. I believe that mindset almost cost me the race, as the stage 4 turned out to be much more difficult than expected. The temperature rose to peaks of 44 degrees right in the morning. The ground was very rocky, which required a lot of concentration. It was at this stage where I really, really felt like sitting down and giving up. I managed to overcome this by recalibrating my expectation, telling myself this is the desert after all and conditions are variable. Taking comfort that my friends were facing the same problems and still journeying with me helped a lot too. Taking the whole stage checkpoint by checkpoint, halfway points by halfway points also helped to lessen the pain. Putting this journey into the perspective of a patient who was going through their journey with a chronic disease also helped, as it allowed me to draw inspiration from their tenacity in their everyday fight with the chronic illness. I believe it was all these that helped me to get through the initial difficult parts of that stage to eventually finish that day stronger than before.

There were definitely aches and pains during the race. However for me, the toughest challenge was not a physical one, hence there was no physical barrier to overcome. Going into this as a team meant that a lot of the race was spent thinking about the team. For me, this presented the challenge of knowing when to trust my friends to take care of themselves, versus stepping in to ensure their well-being. It helped that we had trained together and knew each other’s limits fairly well, but there was always that fear that one of us would overstretch or feel pressurized into pushing too far. Along the way I came to a realisation of sorts: that caring for others and trusting them to take care of themselves are not mutually exclusive. Offering small snacks, making random jokes, reminders to drink up etc would cheer everybody up and support them as we pushed ourselves as a team. In everyday life we see friends, family, people who look down or affected by something and we think to ourselves: they can handle it. We brush past the reality of things, because the reality is that we would never know if they can, and more often than not, they would not know either. All we can do is show our support in whatever way we can so that regardless of how well they have a grip on the situation they know that there is someone there for them, steadying their hand.

The toughest part for me would be towards the end of stage 2 and the start of stage 4. Stage 2 was a horrible day, we started off thinking it would be fun to go to the beach, but when we started running on the soft sand, we regretted it immediately. The soft sand was really tough to move on, every time we plant our foot, it simply sinks in. The wind from the sea also started to freeze our faces and the moisture fogged up the course. It was quite a depressing situation not to see anyone in front or behind you amidst the fog. Not only was the sand soft, the stones among the sand really tested our ankles. I for myself strained my ankles towards the end of the stage, which severely impacted my performance for the rest of the race. Stage 4 was tough as it started off really hot. Stage 3 was already a really hot day, with temperatures spiking up to 38 degrees. Stage 4 was worse at the start, with temperatures peaking 44 degrees and it was just the start of the day. We heard the runner at third place fainted and had to pull out of the race. It was tough just to keep going. The water in our bottles was warm, and we couldn’t wait to get to each checkpoint just to find a little shade.

4. What is one thing you want people to know about mental illnesses?

People with mental illnesses are just like anyone else on the streets most of the time. Due to media portrayals and inevitable focus on the more serious cases in the news, most people have this misconception that people with mental illnesses are violent and crazy, when in reality most of them look and act just like you and me. Just like other illnesses like diabetes, there are medications and therapies that can treat mental illnesses. However, unlike other illnesses, the misconceptions and stigma surrounding mental illnesses are much more prevalent in our society. This stigma often results in people with mental illnesses not getting the proper support that they need from friends, family and the rest of society.

5. What advice would you give to someone suffering from a mental illness?
Seek treatment early. Early diagnosis and treatment is important for a good outcome. However, more often than not even those suffering from mental illnesses believe that it is all in the mind and that they do not require treatment, and even those that do recognise that they need help are afraid to do so because of the stigma against mental illnesses. As we raise awareness, we hope that those people with mental illnesses will also be inspired by the stories we have shared and be more willing to come forth to seek treatment too.

6. What changes do you hope to see in Singapore with regard to mental health in the future?
Definitely we would love to see a society that is accepting and understanding towards mental health issues, one that is more knowledgeable and better able to distinguish between facts and myths regarding mental illnesses. However this is not something that we can achieve alone, nor is it something that can be achieved within a short span of time. We hope that everyone will do their part and work together with us to bring society towards that goal.

7. Does Mental Muscle have plans for the future?

Post-race, we want to complete what we set out to do at the start of our project, fundraising and awareness. Our social media awareness campaign will continue from 16 May to 12 June 2016 and we will continue to work on our publicity and fundraising efforts in order to hit our goal of $50,000 for fundraising. We do hope for the project to continue, however final year is approaching and schoolwork will continue to intensify, so we may have to hand the project down to willing juniors.

Our hope is for a supportive local community that constantly seeks to learn and understand more about mental health, and ultimately, with better understanding of the disease and illness, become more ready to reach out and accept people with mental illnesses. Social and community support is integral in the recovery of people with mental illnesses and we hope to have an inclusive community which promotes mental wellness, so that people with mental illnesses can lead a normal and happy life, without fear of stigma, and with proper support, care and empathy.

8. After raising awareness, what do you think is the next step break the stigma against mental illness?
After raising awareness, we believe that the next step would be to facilitate communication. Raising awareness merely tells people the problem exists, however to truly eradicated the stigma would require a change in the mindsets of people, and this requires much education. We believe that stigma arises from a misunderstanding of mental illnesses, as well as cultural beliefs that are strong in our society. Having a platform for communication would be useful in addressing the misconceptions and show that persons with mental illness are not what many people think they are.
9. How has this experience impacted you?
After returning from the race, not much has changed. We are still regular medical students, anxious about our upcoming year as final year medical students, worried whether we are sufficiently prepared for MBBS exams. But going through this race has reminded us of how much each of us can do as a person. As we see more and more patients in medical school and over the course of our medical careers, we end up recognising only our ability to help people as doctors. We judge our value in how well we can cure the patient or how accurate our diagnosis is. After a while, we lose sight of how simply talking to the patient can be of more value than the diagnosis. Yes, we are medical students, but the awareness and funds raised from this race was not something that was done as medical students. We did it as four people who saw a need and acted on it. In the future, this journey will remind us that there is only so much we can do as doctors, that as we practice medicine, we should not forget about the human touch.

10. If there was one thing you could have changed about the way you handled this project/experience, what would it be?
This experience has definitely been a learning experience and if we could go back in time everything would be done much more smoothly. Having said that we don’t have any regrets with how the project has turned out, as it has far exceeded what any of us had hoped for in the beginning. Given our resources and circumstances, we do feel that we have done as much as we could within our limits but if we had more time and resources we would have loved to conduct forums or organised other events to be more involved and personally engage the public.


Many thanks to Mental Muscle for agreeing to this interview!



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