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An unmatched will to help the mentally ill

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Matchsticks of IMH aims to remove the stigma of mental illness while spreading joy to patients.

As I stepped into ward 53B, I had an uneasy feeling.

It was my first time visiting residents at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), and I did not know what to expect.

With a group of volunteers from Matchsticks of IMH, I walked into the ward cautiously.

But I was pleasantly surprised. The residents welcomed us excitedly. Many of them shook my hand and greeted me, even though I had never met them before.

In the ward's activity room, all I saw were smiling faces and people having a good time enjoying each other's company.

Colouring keeps the patients' minds occupied, helping them to focus better. 

Founded in 2014, Matchsticks of IMH is a volunteer group that aims to help the mentally ill who reside in IMH for more than six months.

Every Saturday, about 30 volunteers, mostly youths aged from 16 to 30, engage with the patients – although  they prefer to refer to the residents as "special friends" – to break the monotony of living in the wards.

Residents from the low dependency ward are encouraged to play complex games like Scrabble, 
which teaches them to be creative and to think outside the box.

During these visits, different activities of varying complexity are carried out, ranging from colouring and henna drawing to mahjong. These activities help to stimulate the patients' minds while keeping them entertained.

Hannie Ching, Matchsticks' leader, said: "These activities help both our "special friends" and our volunteers forge bonds and strengthen relationships between them. If you build rapport, it will be easier to interact with them in the future."

It all started when 27-year-old student Jonathan Kuek volunteered at IMH's ward 62A three years ago. After noticing a lack of helpers at the ward's weekly morning sessions, Jonathan gathered six other youth volunteers and started Matchsticks.

"We chose the name Matchsticks because it embodies the sense of hope that we aspire to be for the mental health community. We also wanted to spark people's passion for helping the mentally ill here in Singapore," said Jonathan, who is studying psychology at James Cook University.

Jonathan Kuek (second from right) with his team of Orientation Leaders (left to right),
Reina Cheong, Hannie Ching, and Xavierlyn Tan. 

In their earlier days, convincing people to join Matchsticks was a constant struggle.

"Even till today, it is still a challenge. Back then, I was the only person in-charge and I had to bounce between the different wards to check on how things were going."

"This led to people forming superficial bonds with each other, and it was hard to engage them and ask them to come back," said Jonathan, who led Matchsticks until May this year.

After two years of hard work, Jonathan finally found a group of committed volunteers for the weekly sessions at IMH. He formed a system that divided volunteers into different wards, allowing them to form stronger bonds with their assigned patients.

The Matchsticks leadership team manages and plans activities in the wards,
including for special occasions like Hari Raya.

"For most of us, it is human instinct to feel appreciated. When you get this feeling, you would naturally want to contribute more. I guess this is a form of payment for us as volunteers, and it makes us want to come back," said Reina Cheong, 18, an Orientation Leader from Matchsticks.

The volunteers also assist the IMH staff to take the patients out for fresh air.

Currently, the 13-strong team hopes to recruit more volunteers, so they can help more patients in the wards.

They also wish to educate others about mental illness in Singapore

By sharing their volunteers' stories and anecdotes about their special friends, the Matchsticks team hopes that the public will realise that the mentally ill are no different from them.

"When you work with the residents, your misconceptions of mental illness will be dispelled because you'll realise they are not so different from you, when they talk about their dreams and goals."

"This helps in clearing the myths and fears of mental illness in Singapore," said Jonathan.

Check out Matchsticks of IMH here for more info.