Meet Ian Dan Mari. Ian is a creative who does motion graphics as well as illustration. One of his most notable works is the motion graphics used at the Pantages for Universal Studios Singapore’s Halloween Horror Nights 9. Aside from his job as a creative, Ian is also a singer and has produced his own music.
Beyond his success, there is a history that not many know.
In 2017, during his National Service stint, Ian checked himself into the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) following doctors’ recommendations and was warded for a day.
In lieu of World Mental Health Day, I met up with Ian to learn more about his experience at IMH and shed some light on the misconceptions people have about Singapore’s sole institution dedicated to mental health.
Julian Wong: What were you warded for?
Ian Dan Mari: Prior to my admission, I was diagnosed with panic disorder with agoraphobia—this means that I do not like to be in a space full of people. Panic disorder is when you have bouts of anxiety. My hands would tremble, get very sweaty, and I would have difficulty breathing. I would be jolted awake at 5 am and have a prolonged sense of fear, with my heart beating very fast.
J: When did you realise you have this?
I: Because of my family background, I’ve always been anxious. My mom is clinically depressed, my brother has anxiety, and although my sister wasn’t diagnosed, she has symptoms of depression. My grandfather is bipolar, so my mom was abused since she was young, and because of that, she wasn’t able to be emotionally ready for her kids. Because of that emotional barrier, we wouldn’t go to her when we had problems. The feeling started bottling up as she started saying mean things to us, her children.
J: What about your father?
I: My father is a great guy, but he doesn’t know how to be emotionally available. He visited me when I was warded and asked what was going on. I said it was because of the home situation, to which he replied: “You just wait for your mum to die la”. This wasn’t what I came here for. I wanted him to understand my perspective and experience, and for him to say that, I knew he understood the hurt but not how to manoeuvre around it as he was already normalised to my mum’s destructive behaviour.
J: Has your mother been admitted before?
I: When she was very young. I don’t remember if she had seen a therapist during the time she had her bouts of depression in my life, but she probably should have.
J: How did your family situation lead to your admission?
I: During the time I was admitted, I would have panic attacks because the family situation was so volatile—it could get verbally abusive, and there’d be fights. Because I was in NS, people noticed and I was taken to see a doctor—that’s when they said I had panic disorder. There was added pressure because people thought I was feigning illness, and I wasn’t that kind of person. Part of being anxious is having irrational thoughts—I kept thinking that people were saying that I was trying to play the system when I wasn’t. I had to keep seeing therapists, as I would have panic attacks and cry out of the blue.
J: What did the therapists say?
I: They told me that if I had suicidal thoughts, they would put me in IMH. At one appointment, I told the doctor that I had suicide notes, and that’s when he recommended me to stay in IMH for observation. It was a prevention method so that I would not go home and do things to myself, as I was already self-harming.
J: Did it take a lot of courage to check yourself into IMH?
I: I was more fearful than courageous. Having to stay in IMH meant that I would have a record and that I would have to tell my parents as I was under 21.
J: Did you need to prepare anything for your stay?
I: If you are already in a state of mind that’s very volatile, you wouldn’t be thinking about this. People already wanting to check in wouldn’t cloud their mind with that.
J: How did your parents react?
I: My dad called, but I said that I didn’t want to talk to my parents. When the nurse conveyed that, I could hear my mom screaming on the other end. When you hear your mum scream, there’s the instinct to cry, and I cried while insisting not to speak to them. I eventually got to the phone, and I could hear what she was saying—she was asking why I was inside, what I had to be stressed about, and lamenting that she was more stressed than me.
J: Since you checked yourself in, did you decide how long to stay?
I: I didn’t. The doctors discharged me the next day because putting me in was a preventive measure, and they were observing my behaviour. They released me because I was okay and I wasn’t suicidal.
J: What were the people warded inside IMH like?
I: There are so many people with different conditions. You’ll see some people walking in groups like a mafia gang, ostracising others. The patients were of different ages, so you had very young people and very old people. I don’t know if everyone in the ‘gang’ had the same condition because you can’t tell just from looking, but they were very disruptive with their screaming—it felt like a jailhouse of sorts. It’s like if you put cats and dogs in a hall, and let them roam around.
J: Does no one stop them?
I: No one stops them. Nothing. Maybe, if it gets violent, but I didn’t see any fights happening, so I didn’t see anyone intervening.
J: Is there anyone you remember in particular?
I: At night, there was this old guy that was using the toilet for very long and left the tap on. The nurse came in and asked what he was doing, but he seemed to have no grasp of reality. The people there are like that— they do whatever they want to do.
J: What about the space?
I: Imagine a long corridor but without any rooms. You’ll have pockets of space for beds, but you won’t see any rooms like in hospitals. There’s a nurse to keep watch and an area where they’ll give you medicine. They’ll put you in a large room for lunch, where you can watch television, and you’ll have newspapers to read as well. There are seats where you can just sit around, and there’s a nurse that will guard the doors.
J: Was there a schedule?
I: I was there at 1 pm, and I left around 2 pm the next day. You’ll usually have one hour for meals where you can watch television and read the news, but once the time is up, you’ll have to go back to the hall. There isn’t a schedule.
J: Did you have any doctors’ appointments during your stay?
I: These usually happen in the morning, and the doctors would go from bed to bed to attend to patients. I didn’t have any, but before I left, I went to see a group of specialists in a room nearby to be advised on how to move forward.
J: What is the biggest misconception people have about IMH?
I: I used to think that IMH was a very dangerous place. However, IMH is more welcoming than what people think—it’s an avenue for help, and if you need it, you should seek it regardless. You will hear people screaming in the compound, but that shouldn’t deter you from seeking the help you need.
J: You can hear people scream?
I: You can hear people scream in the residential area where they are warded. Some prisoners would be brought to IMH to get checked, so you’ll see patients walking in shackled and escorted.
J: Did your stay in IMH help your well-being?
I: For my condition, I’m always experiencing bouts of anxiety. It’s less frequent, but it is as intense as it is now than before. However, I don’t know what would have happened to me if I didn’t stay that day. I’ve had such a prolonged trauma that I would have probably killed myself.
J: How has the stay affected your future?
I: People’s perception of my experience affect me more than the actual stay. When people hear that I went into IMH, they say things like I wouldn’t be able to get a job or be productive at work. I freelance and own my own business, so I never had the chance to go for job interviews, and I can’t say how it might affect that. However, the stay has helped me professionally because I’m able to see my work from a different perspective, and I’m ready to talk about what people on the margin experience—these are things that other people may not have experienced.
J: Do you recommend people go to IMH for help?
I: I wouldn’t say IMH specifically, but go to any professional. People shouldn’t be afraid to seek the help that they need, and I think IMH has the resources—they have therapists, they know what to do—you’ll need these to sort out the issues you have and give clarity to them.
J: What advice would you give people who are struggling with mental health?
I: Recognise your symptoms and validate your experience. Whenever someone has a mental illness, they will question the reality of it and check with the people around them; however, this will skew your perception. Acknowledge that it is real, and then seek help.
Ian then proceeded to show me his notebook, filled to the brim with illustrations and notes. As a designer, these illustrations were his coping mechanism and helped with his fight against mental illness.
My chat with Ian made me realise that depression and mental illness are genuine— that it is something that can happen even to the person who looks the most contented with life.
I applaud Ian for not choosing anonymity and making a stand, for saying that this is who he is and that he is thankful for seeking help. There is no shame in seeking help, and there is so much you can do with life.
“Slowly, but surely, I can do more things.”