A 25-year-old’s journey from a troubled youth to a counsellor-to-be
Today, Julian plans to use his experience to be a lighthouse for youths to turn to when they’re in need.
Counselling services may not appeal to most students due to a myriad of reasons. For Julian Anschel Lai, his initial reluctance to receive counselling support was due to how he thought they were “gossip sessions”.
But Julian has come a long way since then. Now 25, he is well on track to become a counsellor himself, after completing his Master of Counselling at Monash University with Kaplan Singapore.
Upon his graduation in March 2024, Julian plans to focus his career on helping youths. This decision stemmed from his own experience as a troubled youth himself several years back.
Soft-spoken by nature, Julian was often picked on by his peers in primary school. This made him want to fit in with the crowd as he started his secondary school education.
In an attempt to do so, he hid under the guise of being an outspoken and confident person, changing from a reserved kid to one who “wouldn’t shut up”.
However, this did not help to improve his classmates’ perception of him. If anything, Julian admits that he came off as a “very irritating student”. His peers, finding him even more unlikeable, continued to ostracise him till he became closed off again.
In the midst of his struggles to fit in, his grandmother remained a strong pillar of support at home. She was a nurturing and supportive figure in Julian’s life, and the closest family member to him then.
She definitely “was not like a typical Asian grandma” who would fixate on academic performance.
Instead, she would reassure young Julian even when he came home with substandard grades. “There are a lot of people who are filthy rich, have power, and good grades and jobs, but their hearts are black. What’s the point of those materialistic things?” he recalls her saying.
Her eventual passing when Julian was in upper secondary meant losing a huge support system. His mental state then got from bad to worse. Unaware of how to cope, he numbed himself and avoided coming face-to-face with his emotions.
“I just decided to try to not acknowledge it. And pretend like, maybe I didn’t even have this person in my life before.”
But there’s only so much you can sweep under the rug, he adds. “The more you deny something, the more it sort of comes back to haunt you.”
With unresolved grief from his grandma’s death, the next chapter of Julian’s life in junior college continued to be rocky. Academic stressors from school only added on to the load.
At this point, Julian had completely retreated into his shell. He could not find solace even at home, due to the tense relationship between him and his parents.
They did try to engage him, however their attempts were futile as he was resistant to any help.
“I kind of shut myself out from my parents… I didn’t want to talk to them.
“I was very afraid to show people that I had vulnerabilities, especially my parents at that time. I didn’t want them to see I was struggling… Things got worse from there.”
Slowly, Julian fell into a state of emotional turmoil.
But then, a fortuitous event changed the course of his life – he learned about the existence of a school counsellor.
He came across her contact details while mindlessly flipping through the school’s seemingly “useless” student handbook one day.
In a spontaneous moment, Julian took a leap of faith and texted the number, unaware that this decision would eventually have a huge impact on his life.
Although the first few counselling sessions were “uncomfortable” and “awkward”, he started to open up after subsequent sessions. The safe space in the counselling room allowed him to reveal things that most people would consider ugly, Julian says.
Since he had shut himself off for a prolonged amount of time, the counsellor focused on rebuilding Julian’s ability to form useful and meaningful relationships. He was also taught different breathing techniques to regulate his emotions when he’s under pressure.
With his counsellor’s support, Julian was eventually able to process and come to terms with his past behaviours. His counsellor also engaged his parents, and helped them understand Julian better.
It was an important step in patching up the family’s strained relationship. Today, the family is on good terms and remains close.
As the sessions progressed, what stood out most to him was how genuine the school counsellor was. In addition, she would share stories and struggles of her own, which made him feel less alone.
He realised that even counsellors weren’t necessarily people who had zero problems in their lives. In fact, Julian saw how counselling was “powerful as both parties are brought together by their shared humanity”.
This eventually solidified counselling as what Julian wanted to pursue in the future.
With newfound purpose, Julian began his journey in 2020 – pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Guidance and Counselling degree at Northumbria University, under Kaplan Singapore.
As part of the degree programme, he completed 100 hours of contact work via an internship at a private practice, Our Journey Counselling and Wellness. Julian worked with youths ranging from primary school kids to working young adults.
To step further out his comfort zone, he also worked with younger children who were outside the age group he was most accustomed to.
Julian shares that most children do not have the capacity to elaborate on their emotions when asked about them. Thus, to engage the children, he learned to use different means such as allowing them to express themselves through art, catering specifically to their interests and avoiding usage of technical jargon.
He also avoided portraying himself as a “know-it-all” mentor figure, as he believes “clients are the experts of their own lives”.
Besides client work, Julian is also interested in research areas surrounding psychological trauma and trauma-focused therapy, and has a secondary goal of becoming a researcher.
Moving ahead, Julian plans to apply for counsellor positions in schools. He hopes that counselling can be more utilised throughout Singapore, especially for the younger generation.
For youths hesitant to receive support through counselling, Julian wants them to know that there are really well-intentioned people out there who care.
“We have to recognise that we are all still human beings. We have our own needs, and there’s nothing wrong with getting the help that you need.”
If you are in need of support, here are some mental health resources you might find useful: