Sabrina Ooi is the co-founder of Calm Collective, a social enterprise on a mission to break the stigma around mental health in Asia. Founded in 2020, right at the onset of lockdown in Singapore, what started as a one-off summit has since grown into a vibrant community that hosts a regular series of virtual talks, webinars and events focused on mental health.
Below, we speak to Sabrina about her own mental health journey, the misconceptions she often hears about mental health, what she’s getting better at saying ‘no’ to and how she’s making her well-being a priority.
1. Prior to starting Calm Collective, you were a techie, marketer and also a former DJ! I thought an interesting question to start with would be: if you could choose the soundtrack to your life, what would that be?
Sabrina: I have a song that comes up for me and it’s one of my favourites: “You Only Live Once” by The Strokes.
2. You’ve been very candid about your struggles with mental health. Would you mind sharing a bit about your mental health journey?
My story with mental health started from childhood. I’d always been a relatively anxious and sensitive child growing up. I had an ex-boyfriend pass away when I was 17, my parents were going through a divorce, and I also lost a couple of friends to suicide. I guess the combination of all that, along with my struggles with anxiety and self-esteem, gave way to my first depressive episode.
In 2016, I got arrested for a suicide attempt. I knew I had to hit the reset button then and take stock of all the sadness, grief and loss I had been carrying. Fortunately, I found a good therapist that helped me unpack all of the trauma I had been through. It was only during therapy that I realised, “Wait a minute, maybe what I have is not just depression, but also bipolar disorder.” My psychiatrist confirmed that diagnosis, and that actually gave me a lot of insight. It gave me a label to what I was feeling, and I was able to do my research to understand it better.
However, the stories I found were very Western-oriented and hard to relate to sometimes. I guess (the idea for) Calm Collective came about from my experience of learning how to manage my condition and pick myself up. I want to give other people hope to navigate their struggles and help them with their mental health.
“Essentially, what (my co-founder) Alyssa and I are building here is what we would have needed for ourselves and the people that we’ve lost along the way.“
3. What led you to start Calm Collective?
Calm-Collective was meant to be a one-off initiative. We’d planned for just one summit during lockdown in Singapore last year, but when the lockdown got extended, we decided to continue with a few more events. That’s when we realised our audience was growing and that we were really enjoying what we were doing. The turning point for us, from where Calm Collective grew from just a side project to a potential business, was when we (signed) our first partnership with the People’s Association Youth Movement.
4. What’s something that’s surprised you through your work in Calm Collective? Is there a misconception about mental health you often hear?
I was surprised by how interested and proactive the youth have been when it comes to promoting mental health. It’s encouraging to see how big of a change there is across generations when it comes to mental health awareness – even between millennials and Gen Zs.
As for misconceptions… There are so many! I do wish that men would talk about mental health more. There’s also a huge misconception that mental health is “not for me”. To some, talking about mental health implies you have a condition, so they disassociate from it. But the thing is, mental health is for everyone and a key part of your health, just like physical health. Much like you’d go for routine physical health check-ups, your mental health needs regular check-ups too.
5. What is Calm Circles about?
Calm Circles is our new peer-to-peer sharing event that allows our community to come together and connect, learn and share. It’s been great and we’ve had people come to the circle share their deepest struggles. We’ve made it safe enough for people to share what they want, and take a step back if they need to. We’ve also got CalmCon on the pipeline, our virtual mental health and well-being festival. It’s targeted at working professionals across Asia and happening between the 11 and 13 November.
7. Calm Collective’s Instagram (@calmcollectiveasia) is a treasure trove of useful and actionable tips on mental health, life and more. Out of curiosity, is there a small habit, belief or behaviour that has recently changed your life?
I have a morning routine which I’ve adapted from Neil Pasricha’s two-minute morning ritual. I’ve kept to it for over a year and a half now. There are three journal prompts: the first prompt is “I will let go of ____”; the second prompt is “I am grateful for ____” and the third prompt is “I want to focus on ____”. I find that this really helps set me up for the day.
Also read: 5 wellness habits that could change your life
My biggest investment in terms of both money and energy would be investing into my mental health, even when I found myself on both sides of the continuum – both good and bad.
8. Your thoughts on social media and mental health?
I’m kind of on the fence about social media. As with any kind of media, the quality of what you consume can affect the quality of your well being. I choose to use it in the way that helps me the most: to keep in touch with my friends, journal and (chronicle) what I’ve been doing in my life. I also curate my newsfeed very religiously. Every one or two months, I’ll take a look at who I’m following and intentionally mute or unfollow certain accounts that, you know, don’t make me feel good. So in other words, I kind of Marie Kondo my social media accounts.
9. What have you become better at saying ‘no’ to?
Oh, yes, good question. For Calm Collective: anything that distracts me from either growing our impact or growing the business. On a personal level: I am saying no to anything that does not line up with who I am or things that do not serve my mental health.
10. What’s the best investment you’ve made in your future?
My biggest investment in terms of both money and energy would be investing in my mental health, even when I found myself on both sides of the continuum – both good and bad. So in bad times, I’ve invested in therapy, and even when I’m, you know, doing alright, I still see my therapist. It really helps me check in with myself, get grounded, that I’m doing all right, and I’m able to manage the stresses that come up in life. I’ve also invested in life coaching sessions and I’ve really benefited a lot from that. I started life coaching when I wanted to make a move from my 9-to-5 and into doing (Calm Collective) full-time. It’s helped me to do it in a way that was also sustainable for my mental health.
11. Lastly, what does the ideal retirement look like to you?
Retirement in the traditional sense doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t foresee myself not working, because I do enjoy working and I love what I do. To me, I think retirement means having the financial freedom to choose what I do for work, when I work, and when I play as well.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. To find out more about Calm Collective, visit their website or Instagram.