Healing the Mind Through Music
Ms Eileen Chai (Science ’01) drew from her own struggles to create a unique movement that seeks to bring about greater empathy and understanding of mental health concerns.
WHO SHE IS
Ms Eileen Chai (Science ’01) is the co-founder of 3AM Music Collective and Strings For Kindness, which seeks to harness the power of music to spread awareness and acceptance of mental health conditions in society. A former national gymnast, diver, and hurdler, she is also a best-selling author.
My purpose in life is to give through music,” said Ms Eileen Chai to her audience last December at a TEDx Youth event at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. And it would be no exaggeration to say that hers has been a most extraordinary life. On the surface, Ms Chai is a textbook overachiever: she remains the youngest Singaporean athlete to compete at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, having done so at the age of seven; is an accomplished violinist; a Ministry of Education-certified physical education and music teacher; the author of a best-selling book; and co-founder of 3AM Music Collective, a music project that offers hope and empathy to troubled minds.
What most people may not have seen, however, are the bouts of crippling low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression that plagued her for most of her life. Though her parents did not place pressure on her to excel, Ms Chai was naturally gifted in gymnastics, art, ballet, Chinese dance, violin, piano, and swimming, having started some of these pursuits at the age of four. “It was only when I was approaching seven, when I was selected to represent Singapore at the 1985 SEA Games, that I stopped everything but gymnastics and ballet,” she explains. At age nine, she chose for herself what few would have done at the time: to travel to China regularly for gymnastics training. She became very good at her sport, but it took a toll on her body and emotions: she sustained injuries constantly, and being on the road so much with no family or friends left her with a sense of “deafening” loneliness. It came to a point where her mind and body could go no further. She walked away from the sport, with little idea at the time of the psychological damage that those years had inflicted on her.
THE POWER OF MUSIC
Ms Chai initially thought little of the inexplicable anxiety she experienced when she entered the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Science. “I was elected Vice-President of the Microbiology Students’ Society,” she says. “But I was afraid of meeting my committee members outside of lectures; I would always avoid them. It got to a point where I was anxious of being anxious about the fact that I was anxious of meeting friends!” She did not understand why she felt like that — “I thought it was just me being useless.”
One day, she walked past a rehearsal room managed by the NUS Centre For the Arts. She looked in and saw members of the NUS Symphony Orchestra laughing, and felt a rush of happiness — particularly upon spotting her favourite instrument, the violin. “Once I discovered the NUS Symphony Orchestra, music took precedence over microbiology!” she admits. “Our conductor, Mr Lim Soon Lee, is a wonderful educator. We always had fun during rehearsals. It was particularly great for me because for the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged to a place, to a group, and didn’t feel anxious about being around people. I could bring my beloved violin out of the house and play it along with my friends.” An average student by her own admission, Ms Chai nevertheless has some good memories from her time in Microbiology. “We’d go to the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve with Professor Peter Ng, walking through the swamp,” she recalls. “He would share with us non-textbook-style information and knowledge — all the things we learnt during lectures came alive!”
The Write Stuff
In 2014, Ms Chai wrote Teach A Life, For Life
. “It’s a self-help book featuring life lessons I learned through sports and music. I share my story — my mistakes, my thoughts, and the lessons I learned — and pose questions to lead readers to reflect on their own lives, and how they can make their lives better,” she says.
The bestseller became a must-read on the topic of resilience for students, and the publicity around it earned Ms Chai many musical and public speaking engagements.
CHANGING HERSELF, CHANGING SOCIETY
Upon graduation, Ms Chai joined the Singapore Youth Orchestra where she played the viola, and spent a year studying at the Chicago College of Performing Arts before returning to Singapore. Her penchant for lifelong learning saw her obtaining credentials in several fields: she is a Ministry of Education-certified teacher, an international judge in gymnastics and diving, and an international coach in track and field, among other things. She returned to competitive sports in 2004 as a national diver and hurdler, and participated in speaker workshops and trainings as a Team Singapore athlete. She was also on the Youth Olympic Games’ organising committee in 2009.
But while on the outside things seemed to be picking up, Ms Chai was experiencing increasing mental stress. “My brain was always in tight knots — I could not rest my mind,” she describes. She found herself constantly picking fights with her husband, Mr Ben Kranen. In 2015, she reached her breaking point. “One day, I slammed my hand into a sharp kitchen knife and blood splattered all over the kitchen,” she recalls. “It was like a crime scene.”
Mr Kranen recognised at that point that his wife needed serious intervention, but it would take a near-death incident in 2016 for her to seek professional help. With the encouragement and support of her husband, Ms Chai saw a psychiatrist, Dr Ken Ung, who diagnosed her with social anxiety disorder. Embarking on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with Dr Ung helped her to systematically reflect on her thought processes. She also found a regular Christian Fellowship Ministry to attend. The ‘brain pain’, however, continued until one day in 2017, when — at the end of a nature walk with her husband in Taiwan, and away from work and social media — she realised she could not feel the knots in her head for the first time in her life. Nature walks have now become a regular Sunday activity. Ms Chai came to the realisation that “there was no one solution to fix [her] mental health issue; it was a process that [she] had to go through to experience and understand the healing.”
Many people with mental health issues are afraid to speak up because they fear being judged and being seen as weak or ‘freaks’. These are the kind of prejudices and taboos that they face — as if the psychological conditions weren’t bad enough.
SONGS THAT HEAL
Today, Ms Chai is passionate about creating awareness for mental health, and she does so through 3AM Music Collective and her violin initiative, Strings For Kindness. 3AM is a unique initiative — it builds on a 10-song cycle that educates the listener on what someone with depression and anxiety experiences as he or she progresses from hurt to healing. In this collaboration, songs are penned and performed by artistes and musicians of various genres such as Jack And Rai, Beverly Morata Grafton, Kevin Mathews, Ng Yu-Ying and Mr Kranen. These songs have been powerful in connecting with those who are going through mental health issues and, like her, are looking to understand themselves. The 10-song cycle was featured at this year’s Beyond the Label Festival, organised by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS).
Meanwhile, through working with Dr Ung, Ms Chai discovered that she has a high Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) score. She finally understood that she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from her years in China. Now that she has identified her life goal as “to give through music”, Ms Chai hopes that she can effect a lasting change in society’s attitudes towards mental health issues. “Many people with mental health issues are afraid to speak up because they fear being judged and being seen as weak or ‘freaks’. These are the kind of prejudices and taboos that they face — as if the psychological conditions weren’t bad enough,” she notes. Turning to the present, she adds that people may be more vulnerable to stress, anxiety, and interpersonal tension and conflict given the COVID-19 pandemic. “Let’s be less judgemental, show more empathy, and shower unconditional love on ourselves and the people around us.”
Text by Theresa Tan. Main Photo by Femke Tewari