By Integrated Care Journal-
“My dream is to create a world where everyone feels safe enough to have the conversations that matter with the people that matter to them. ” These are the words of Gwen Yi Wong, One Young World Ambassador and Founder of Tribeless, an empathy training company, who spoke to Dan Male, Editor-in-Chief at Public Policy Projects, about how the world can have more meaningful conversations.
For many around the globe, the experience of lockdown has been isolation, solitude and a sense of entrapment. For young people in particular, this sense has been compounded by continued access to the rest of the world in real-time through smartphones and the internet, acting as a constant reminder of differing freedoms from place to place. However, the fragility of mental health through the pandemic is not an issue that has gone unnoticed. World Mental Health Day 2020 centred on ‘mental health for all’ – a message of empowerment and recognition that positive mental health is something that all groups from all cultures should experience and value.
Not only has the pandemic, and the national strategies used to manage its spread, led to increased anxiety, bereavement and isolation; Covid-19 itself can result in neurological and mental complications. As health services have braced themselves to cope with a rise in infections, 93 per cent of critical mental health services around the world have been disrupted or halted. Some 70 per cent of countries adopted telehealth solutions to plug this gap, yet it is unknown how well these services act as a substitute. Nurturing positive mental health is more pressing than ever.
For Gwen, a personal journey of mental health challenges began years before anyone had heard of Covid-19. As a young person from a stable home, it is very easy to feel that your mental health doesn’t matter, acknowledged Gwen. While feelings such as this vary between cultures and individuals, the growing reach of the internet presents an enormous opportunity to educate people around the world about mental health and its impacts. For connected and engaged young people, often more aware than their parents about the importance of mental health, this is beginning to have a real impact. Many have even found themselves educating the generation before them.
Growing up Malaysian-Chinese and moving to San Francisco to pursue a career in Silicon Valley, Gwen is far from blind to the different cultural and societal attitudes towards mental health. This was thrown into sharp relief when she had her own experience with depression. “There I was in my dream city, San Francisco, gearing myself up to win hackathons, and my mental health was at rock bottom,” says Gwen Yi, reflecting on the period through which she threw everything into her career and ended up burnt out, depressed and in a state of financial anxiety.
“I felt I was stranded, alone, in a very strange world away from my home, all the people I knew and loved, and I was faced with a choice: do I stay on and ‘hustle,’ or do I make the even more painful choice of dropping out of university, giving up my dreams and coming home,” she recounts. It was at this point that Gwen returned to Malaysia and, following a six-month period of struggle without being able to fully communicate how she was feeling, she arranged a dinner party to bring together people with one rule: “No Small Talk”. To Gwen’s surprise, this decision resulted in ten strangers gathering and her completely opening up about her mental health.
Tribeless – starting the journey
On 30 September 2020, Tribeless turned four. The journey to its creation began with the dinner party that allowed space for people to speak, others to listen and the group to display empathy and understanding. Following a series of dinners, Gwen began to explore ideas for spreading the benefits of this interaction at greater scale. The format was eventually converted into a card game – The Empathy Box – which has one simple goal: to create a safe place for people to talk.
Cards on the table
“When you use the cards in a sequence, you turn the conversation from a series of defensive responses, to an open, curious dialogue where individuals can have a conversation,” illustrates Gwen.
The first card – ‘show some love’ – instructs users to show empathy, appreciation and to resonate with the issue. This is key to helping both parties know they are not alone. The second card, entitled ‘help me understand,’ invites users to ask questions and seek clarity about the issue, most importantly challenging assumptions. Thirdly, comes ‘share an observation’ which invites individuals to share their observations about the situation or individual in a constructive way and, finally, users are asked to ‘offer an alternate perspective’.
A simple solution, yet one that changes a fundamental behaviour in a positive way, either while using the Empathy Cards or afterwards through skills developed while using them. Current users include educators, agile coaches teaching communication within teams, social and family groups, and international organisations hosting forums such as the Obama Foundation.
While of her own admission this is not therapy, it is not led by mental health professionals and is not prescribed treatment, Tribeless is a human answer to a human struggle. “It felt therapeutic,” says Gwen, “to bring people together and facilitate meaningful interactions. ” Tribeless offers a way to teach ‘empathetic conversation skills’ including active listening, holding space and exploring vulnerability. “These are the skills that contribute to creating a culture of empathy within groups,” explains Gwen.
Gwen is excited to see Tribeless begin its transition into a training body, tweaking its focus from facilitating meaningful interactions to educating and upskilling people. Her plan is for this to be done through virtual training and workshop programmes which can be accessed around the world.
“We are really committed to the idea of tapping into what the universal human experience is like,” says Gwen. Rather than seek to change policy, her priorities are about empowering people to have better interactions and better relationships which contribute towards more positive mental health outcomes. This, it seems, is a view shared by many others.
The interest in the journey of Tribeless so far really speaks “to the hunger we all have for more empathetic conversations,” reflects Gwen, already planning the next stage. Her view is a global one, appropriate given the universal nature of mental health struggles. “Our objective is to develop our own curriculum – Empathy In Action – and develop a community of people around the world who are committed to learning these skills,” concludes Gwen. The next chapter is just beginning.
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