Japanese girl’s suicide led one woman to start counselling arm for tertiary students
by Christine Leow // October 22, 2020, 11:12 am
Pamela Koh studying the Bible with a student in Japan. A mission trip to Japan as an undergrad led her to a ministry there, and onto start Cru Singapore's counselling arm, ThriveSg. All photos courtesy of Pamela Koh
Pamela Koh was planning to return to Singapore after spending six years in Nagoya, Japan, working with students across three university campuses.
The staff of Cru Singapore wanted to say good-bye to the students she had journeyed with. One of them was Yoko, who was among the first who had accepted Christ during Koh’s campus ministry.
“Yoko was very special to me,” Koh, 40, told Salt&Light.
Her text to Yoko brought unexpected news.
“Her mum texted back and said that Yoko had committed suicide a year ago.
“I was very sad and very shocked.
“Yoko had written to God. Her happiest times were when she was in a Christian community in university.”
“On hindsight, she may have had some form of schizophrenia because she told me she would hear voices. We loved her and welcomed her to the Christian community. She would come to our camps.”
Koh met up with Yoko’s mother instead.
“She told me that after Yoko passed away, she found letters that Yoko had written to God saying that the happiest times in her life were when she was in a Christian community in university. I knew she was referring to her time with Cru.”
This was a “significant milestone” that “left an impact”. Koh was more determined to further God’s call in the counselling field that she was in.
Koh’s burden for counselling begun during a mission trip to Japan as a third-year student in university.
She found that the country has the highest number of suicides in Asia. “I was very surprised. How can a technologically-advanced, materially rich place have such a high number of suicides?”
“The students I met on campus had never met Christians or heard of Jesus. I felt very sad. God gave me a burden for Japan. It was a God-thing.”
This led her to work with Cru in Japan after graduating.
“All of us have trauma and baggage”. Though some manage to hide it well.
There, Koh encountered many students with “emotional baggage”.
“I learnt that discipleship isn’t just about teaching them the Word but that their emotional health and emotional baggage can impact how they perceive God, how they grow.
“I felt limited in my ability to help them with their emotional challenges. So, I wanted to be better equipped to be able to disciple holistically.”
That brought Koh home to Singapore in 2011 to pursue a Masters in Counselling.
Perfectly hidden depression
But it would be another six years after earning her degree before she could start a counselling arm within Cru Singapore.
“It’s okay not to be okay … They didn’t have to go through it alone. Help is out there.”
“The timing was just not right. So, I asked God: ‘Why don’t I just do counselling internally?’
“I proposed this role and I am so thankful that my boss took a chance on me.”
Koh became Cru Singapore’s in-house counsellor, supporting staff and returning missionaries. It made her Koh realise that “all of us have traumas and baggage”. Though some manage to hide it well.
“In life, we will have problems. It’s all about our capacity to cope. Some of us have a higher capacity to cope. I call it PhD or perfectly hidden depression.
“Some of us don’t have capacity to cope or did not have the opportunity to learn the skills to manage our emotions healthily,” Koh said, referring to how Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can affect later health and well-being.
(ACES include abuse, neglect, as well as mental illness, violence and substance abuse in the family. Exposure to just four of the 10 ACEs as a child tremendously increases the odds of depression and suicide in adulthood.)
As she counselled others, Koh also found herself reflecting on her own trauma. Her father had passed away suddenly from a heart attack when she was nine.
“I was very, very close to him. There were times in my life when I felt very sad for extended periods. But when I was in school, no one could tell. I wished I had somebody then to talk to who would listen to me and encourage me. Life would not have been so lonely.”
So, Koh sought to be the listening ear she herself never got as a child. In time, the Cru Singapore school staff not only went to her, they also asked her to help students they were working with on campuses.
She helped as many as she could. But because it was beyond her scope of work as an in-house counsellor for staff, she had to refer some to her network of counsellors.
“Many students came back to say they couldn’t afford to pay for professional help because they didn’t want their parents to know. There was also a stigma attached to going to school counsellors.
“These students had challenges and that put a burden in my heart. I wanted to send the message that it’s okay not to be okay, it’s okay to feel down and that they didn’t have to go through it alone. Help is out there.”
Last year, she felt the prompting that it was “time to revisit this vision God had given me many year ago”: To start a counselling arm for students Cru Singapore was reaching out to.
She worked on a proposal and submitted it to the leadership at Cru Singapore. Then, she waited.
“I wished I had somebody then to talk to who would listen to me and encourage me.”
“I trusted God. I knew if this is a God thing, He was going to make it happen. I had a lot of peace while I waited on God.”
Nine months later in July this year, she got the go-ahead.
ThriveSg was born. It is a platform to promote emotional wellness and resilience, provide emotional healing and support personal growth. The ministry is open to all tertiary students.
It has a team of 10 trained volunteer counsellors to journey one-on-one with the students. In the pipeline are workshops on managing emotions, dealing with addictions and other mental health issues relevant to young people. They hope to add support groups as the ministry grows.
The Sg in ThriveSg does not stand for Singapore. It is shorthand for their belief that one has to grow emotionally in order to thrive significantly.
“We call our clients Thrivers. Because a thriver is someone who is proactive and courageous in seeking the support they need.”
It aims to create a help-seeking culture and a growth perspective towards counselling to remove the stigma around mental health.
“A thriver is someone who is proactive and courageous in seeking the support they need.”
“Don’t wait till you are having serious mental health illness to get help,” urges Koh. “Investing in our emotional resilience is something developmental and an important part of our growth.
“It takes a lot of courage to say: ‘I may not be depressed but I can do better emotionally and I can do something about it.’”
Koh believes that emotional wellness is part of God’s “holistic” plan.
“We are asked to love Him with all our heart, all our soul and all our mind (Matthew 22:37). Jesus himself talks about how He wants to bring healing to our hearts as well (Luke 4:18).
“Our emotional issues also affect our physical and our spirituality. You cannot be spiritually mature if you are emotionally immature. We should be as concerned about our emotional well-being as much as we are about our physical well-being.”
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