TW: Mentions of suicide
As a co-founder of Kau OK Tak, Kathleeya Richard believes in the importance of mental health and using counselling as a tool to improve our well-being. With a focus on teenage mental health, Kau OK Tak is a local mental health initiative that aims to help teens through community support. In this interview article, Kathleeya talks about the history behind the initiative, the truth about high school counselling in Malaysia and more.
Could you share a bit about Kau OK Tak’s history and why it was important for you to start this mental health initiative?
To explain the history of Kau OK Tak, I have to go back a little bit and explain the history of Taylor’s Connect. So, I’m also the co-founder of Taylor’s Connect, and it’s the same thing Kau OK Tak is doing but for Taylor’s students. We had a suicide case that happened in Taylor’s and the management was not very supportive. When it happened, they didn’t let any students or lecturers talk about it. It was very hush-hush and secretive.
It happened during the day on a weekday in the middle of campus, where people are always walking. And we had lecturers who were a bit insensitive because they didn’t know how to react, so sometimes they would make jokes about it. A bunch of students came in during a town hall and we decided that we should start a student support group. They had counselling services but they were quite overwhelmed because so many people were going to them right after this incident. So, it wasn’t a way to replace counselling per se but just a space for us to talk about it.
Of course, the management disagreed but we still proceeded as an independent thing and we said we wouldn’t be affiliated with the university. It worked really well, we basically relied on community support so if you were interested, you could come in and volunteer to talk to people. When this was a success, I thought it would be nice if I had this kind of support as a teenager because I myself have some mental health issues that go back to when I was a teen, and I thought that maybe we could just do that.
I joined the YSEALI Bootcamp and chose the cause of mental health and counselling for teenagers because of personal experience and all the age groups; teenagers have the least access to counselling or mental healthcare. If you’re a university student, you can go to your university counsellor but as a child, you need consent from your parents and you can’t simply go for counselling. So, we joined that, won a grant from Malaysiakini and proceed from there.
Do you think that all high school students should be encouraged to see the school counsellor at least once?
Yeah, definitely. We’re all for counselling so if they want to or if the facility is there, I think they should go for it. But I wouldn’t blame them if they didn’t. There’s this campaign that started because of the Ain case that exposed a teacher for making sexual jokes. She did bring it up to her counselling teacher but they just brushed it off. This is one small example but Kau OK Tak did a Padlet where you could write down your experience with school counselling and 90% of them were negative experiences. We took in the data and felt like it was not something that these students can rely on.
I think parents also play a big role in all this because students have to deal with a lot of academic stress and peer pressure, and they often feel like their parents don't really understand them. If you could talk to all the parents of teenagers right now, what would you like for them to understand about teenagers?
I always get so intimidated when talking to parents because I’m not a parent myself. But first and foremost, I would say to listen to them. I think that’s the first step of everything. You might disagree and think, ‘How is this possible?’ but just take some time to have a check-in. Either weekly or bi-weekly, sit with your child and ask how everything is going. If they talk to you, listen and only give advice when they ask you for them because they may be looking for a channel to let things out.
Try your best to not be judgemental and it comes back to the advice thing. Sometimes when people tell you problems, it’s human nature to want to solve conflict and automatically give advice about what they’re supposed to do. But your child might just want to let it out. I feel like once you establish this step of them opening up and being more honest with you, though they’re not telling you 100% of everything, if you give them enough space, I think they would.
I also do want to touch on emotions because you said something during our 'no holdbacks' health forum back in November about there being no negative emotions that hit me. We have really normalised pushing away negative emotions instead of accepting and reflecting on them. Do you think that we should get rid of the idea of labelling emotions as 'good' or 'bad' altogether?
I feel like people are slowly moving towards that but I think anything related to societal norms is one of the hardest things to change. Even I sometimes still think, ‘I shouldn’t be sad’ and these thoughts still come to me. I think we can practise it on ourselves and then maybe with your group of friends so hopefully, society will one day follow.
Besides Kau OK Tak, you've mentioned that you’re also involved in other initiatives. As a fresh graduate, do you have any tips for university students who have a lot on their plates?
Ask yourself if all the things you are doing are meaningful to you. If it stresses you out more than it makes you happy then maybe you should let it go. You have limited time and energy so you would want to spend it on things you really care about. One way or another, I think that you have to choose your priorities.
Interviewer: Isabel Ng
CM Journalist 21/22