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Book review of "My Voice: Overcoming"

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On hearing of a newly published book on depression titled “My Voice; Overcoming”, I decided to contact the author, Mr Chua Seng Lee , to determine if there was some way of introducing this insightful book to readers of my blog. He was extremely friendly in our email exchanges and immediately agreed to meet up over coffee.

The Meeting

On the day of our appointment, I was not feeling very well due to a flare up of my arthritis. I did not want Seng Lee to think I was a sourpuss so after the introductions, I explained my physical discomfort. To my surprise he told me that he too had arthritis! Our sharing about how the condition affected our lives immediately brought us closer on a personal level and we easily segued into a discussion of his book and how it came into existence.

Seng Lee explained that the original motivation to write My Voice: Overcoming arose out of his shock and distress at the suicide of a young student he was mentoring. He also modestly told me of various people who had encouraged him to write the book including his publisher, Mr Chin Kar Tan. Seng Lee answered my questions about how he had succeeded in the herculean task of finding, interviewing, and writing the stories of Singaporeans who had experienced depression and were willing to have their stories published.

One recurring theme of the stories in the book is the frequent stigmatization of persons with emotional or psychiatric problems here in Singapore. His seven contributors who revealed their experience with depression risked such stigmatization and are courageous individuals motivated by a genuine and urgent need to help others cope with depression.

The Book

My Voice: Overcoming is a remarkably well written and balanced portrayal of depression. In the preface, Seng Lee writes “It is not a natural choice for me to write on depression, since I am neither a writer by profession nor a medical expert on this subject.” Nevertheless he has succeeded admirably in writing a book which reads well, relates personally, is engaging and yet simultaneously presents a lot of factual information about depression. Part of his success in making the book easy to read is that he has artfully divided his material into five well selected parts. Part one deals with a description of Colin Teo and how his suicide was the initial impetus for Seng Lee to write this book.

Part two, the core of the book, presents the moving personal stories of seven people who had experienced and overcame depression. The people interviewed by Seng Lee varies greatly from a student whose depression was caused by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), to a well known local celebrity struggling with stardom and publicity. It also included people from more common backgrounds including a woman who was simply over stressed by demands and committments. The latter is the type of client I see most frequently in my practice. I also work with persons suffering from OCD or bipolar mood disorder although much less frequently.

Seng Lee succeeded admirably not only in relating the sufferings of his interviewees, but also balanced this very nicely by outlining the positive strategies used by the interviewees to cope with their depression. For example, in the very first case presented of a student with depression and OCD, the student advocates three things that he found useful in this recovery: faith (spirituality), having a positive social support group, and maintaining a passion, positive dreams or goals in your life.

Part three of the book describes the interviews Seng Lee had with various professionals, including a very informative one with Dr. Leslie Lim. Dr. Lim informed that depression is "a biochemical disorder triggered by life events". Thirty-five percent of such cases are genetically influenced while 65% are caused purely by environmental factors.” An additional fact about depression not mentioned in this section is that only between 2% and 9% of the depressed commit suicide (Bostwick and Pankratz, 2000).

In other words 91 to 98% of the depressed do not commit suicide. Also it has been well established that of those who do commit suicide, the vast majority suffer from a psychiatric illness of some kind (Arsenault-Lapierre et al, 2004). And a final fact is that: although it is generally agreed that there is no reliable predictor of whether someone will commit suicide, there are risk factors of varying importance such as the presence of a psychiatric condition or previous attempts.

In part five, titled “Moving On”, there is a chapter named “My Voice” in which the author summarizes the various strategies utilized by his interviewees in recovering from their depression. Here again Seng Lee provides a balanced view and does not just provide a single simplistic solution to the problem of depression. Indeed, he lists five needs which must be addressed in depression recovery: the need to share our emotions, to seek professional help, to create realistic expectations, to be connected to our soul, and finally to help others.

The first three needs are consistent with, but not limited to psychological treatment by professionals. For example, emotional expression is addressed in Emotion Focussed Therapy (EFT), while developing realistic expectations of others and the self are addressed by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The second need, seeking professional help, is often met by professionals such as psychiatrists who may prescribe medications for depression. Professional help can also be in the form of counselling or therapy by psychologists, counsellors, and social workers.

The fourth and fifth needs have not received as much attention from psychologists although I think they are just beginning to. For example, Thomas Moore in his beautiful book “Care of the Soul” emphasizes caring for the soul as opposed to trying to cure it. With respect to helping others, Seng Lee wisely wrote “We must go beyond self-seeking to help giving.” and that many of his interviewees “turned their setbacks into motivation to help others”.

On the last pages, the author has provided a useful section on “Resources and Support” which provides contact information for relevant organization such as the Samaritans of Singapore which has a 24 hour hotline and “Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors (LOSS).

Conclusion

Mr Chua Seng LeeI commend Seng Lee for having written a book which is remarkably balanced with respect to both its perspective on depression, and what can be done to “overcome” this debilitating condition. It is a moderate book that avoids simplistic solutions but instead seeks to share the stories of sufferers from which others may be able to identify with. Finally, it is practical book offering useful advice and information about depression. I highly recommend this book to both the general public and mental health professionals in general.

References

Arsenault-Lapierre G., Kim C., Turecki G. (2004). "Psychiatric diagnoses in 3275 suicides: a meta-analysis". BMC Psychiatry 4: 37.
Bostwick, J. M., & Pankratz, V. S. (2000). The American Journal of Psychiatry. 157, 1925-1933.
Chua, S.L. (2011). My Voice: Overcoming. Write Editions, Singapore.

Copyright © 2011 by Dr. Brian S. Scott
 


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