More than a listening ear: How volunteering helped this 22-year-old see diverse needs in the area of mental health

From being a peer supporter to conducting legal research, Cameron Tan has found many ways to advocate for the cause of mental health.

Nnurul Shakinah

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Published: 28 October 2022, 6:14 PM

When he was in secondary school, Cameron Tan had friends confiding in him about their struggles, but found himself unsure of how to support them. 

He did not know how to respond appropriately, apart from spending time with them. 

“It was a struggle because I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how to help,” he says. 

That sparked an interest in learning what he can do when facing similar situations in the future, and it started a journey of volunteerism in the mental health space in 2018. 

Now 22, the National University of Singapore Social Sciences undergraduate has worked with non-profit organisations such as Silver Ribbon Singapore, which aims to eradicate stigma surrounding mental wellness, and Youth Guidance Outreach Services, which provides youth with mentoring support.

Most recently, he also started volunteering with Youth Corps Singapore (YCS) under the organisation’s Mental Health Cluster. He is also involved in Project Re:ground, an initiative by YCS in collaboration with the Health Promotion Board to advocate the importance of youth mental wellbeing and peer support as a life skill. 

In his four years as a volunteer, one of the lessons Cameron learnt through volunteering is that “being there” for someone is important even if you do not have solutions to problems they are facing. 

“I think being able to be there with them, showing them that someone cares, will help them process their thoughts and emotions,” he says. 

This belief was put to the test when he became a peer supporter at NUS, where he is studying social work and psychology. After attending a semester-long module to become a peer supporter, he was tasked to man the drop-in centre and have conversations with people who drop in to destress, if they wish to do so. 

While there wasn’t a single person who came up to him to openly share about their struggles in the five months Cameron was there, it did not discourage him. 


The NUS team of peer supporters Cameron was involved in. PHOTO CREDIT: NUS PEER STUDENT SUPPORTERS


Instead, it emphasised his belief that the combined efforts of all the peer supporters is required to create a space for those in need. 

“I think just having people there, having that presence there, having a conducive environment, it’s still helpful,” he says, noting instances when people did go up to other peers on duty for support. 

Apart from spending time volunteering as a peer supporter, Cameron also took part in other research efforts to support the “emerging field of peer support”, such as taking part in clinical research on peer support. 

Early last year, he worked with mental health startup, Acceset as a special projects intern. Acceset manages a blog dedicated to helping users with their mental health concerns by providing anonymous text-based therapy.

His job scope included looking at legal research on the duty of care for peer supporters. 

Asking questions like “if something bad happens, who is liable?” and “what are the waivers?”, his research was aimed to help people involved in mental health work better understand their legal obligations and protections.

About a year ago, Cameron heard about volunteer programmes offered by the Mental Health Cluster of YCS and quickly got involved.

Through working on projects with other YCS volunteers, Cameron met many like-minded individuals who have become an encouragement for him. 

“I think it’s very meaningful to work with them, hear their stories, find out why they volunteer, what drives them. I think these are things that are very inspirational for me,” he says. 


Cameron (far left) posing for a picture with President Halimah Yacob, when hosting the “Dear Mum and Dad” event with YCS mental health cluster in support of Beyond The Label Fest 2022. PHOTO CREDIT: FACEBOOK/@YOUTHCORPSSG


At Project Re:ground, one of the initiatives Cameron is involved in includes a Community Peer Supporter Programme where peer supporters can come together for mutual support and learning. 

“Some of their stories were about tough peer interactions and how they navigated around these. I think it’s very helpful to know how to navigate different complexities that you may eventually face in the future,” he says.

Beyond insights, the group also shares their fears and uncertainties to mutually support each other.

“Knowing that you’re not alone – there’s that power and community,” Cameron says. 


Cameron at his first check-in session with Project Re:ground. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/NNURUL SHAKINAH


While Cameron has come a long way from the secondary school student who did not know how to support his friends, he still feels that he has a lot to learn. 

He says that learning how to help people from diverse backgrounds will always be one of his goals.  

 “I don’t think anyone has it completely nailed down,” he shares. 

As for the future of mental health in Singapore, Cameron sees the value of youths being more trained to spot early signs of distress, and normalising mental health conversations.

“While there are important policy shifts and interventions, I think it’s very important for youths to be familiar with some of the basic signs and symptoms. 

“Certain small things that you do, acts of care, acts of concern, and certain small things that you say, your facial expressions when you respond to what someone says, goes a very long way.”

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