Expat Living (Singapore)
How losing a child to suicide led YEN-LU CHOW to become an “accidental” socialpreneur, channelling his energies into the issues around youth mental wellness.
Striving for a kinder world
Yen-Lu Chow spends his time serving a wide range of social initiatives. He is the executive chairman of the WholeTree Foundation and Over-The-Rainbow (OTR), co-founder and executive chairman of the Asia Institute of Mentoring, and an executive mentor at YSI SEA (Young Sustainable Impact – Southeast Asia). He’s also founder of the Deep Human Movement.
Through these many non-profit initiatives, Yen-Lu’s life mission is to help bring about a kinder, gentler, more inclusive, more just and sustainable world. He talks to us about the critical work he’s doing working with young people in the mental health space.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
It has been quite a journey. I come from a very humble family. I was born in Taiwan, and emigrated overseas when I was a kid – first to Okinawa, Japan (where I spent my formative years as a teenager and graduated from high school), then later to the United States where I attended university and spent many years working in the tech industry. My family and I moved to Singapore in 1996.
What brought you here?
I became an entrepreneur and started my first company in 1997. I started a few more companies after that and became a venture capitalist and later an angel investor. After that, I became an advisor and mentor to other entrepreneurs, even with the government. In 2009, I became an “accidental” socialpreneur because I lost my son to suicide. This family tragedy changed the course of my life.
Tell us about your non-profit, OverThe-Rainbow.
Eleven years ago, my family and I experienced the worst kind of nightmare that no parents would ever dare to think about. At the age of 26, my son Lawrance took his own life while studying at university in Australia. He was suffering from manic depression.
It was a very dark and difficult time for us. His passing also changed the course of our life. Our son was a very caring and compassionate person. He once told us, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could make a difference in someone’s life?”
His life and his legacy became our inspiration; they were the genesis of our family foundation, the WholeTree Foundation, and Over-The-Rainbow (OTR), a youth mental wellness initiative in his loving memory. OTR is a one-stop hub with a mission to transform mental wellness for the 21st century. The rainbow symbolises light and hope – that there’s a pot of gold at the other end. A rainbow appears after the rain. We wish to convey that in the transformation from grief to hope.
Why are young people facing increasing mental health challenges?
Mental health is a clear and urgent issue in modern society; it’s the next major epidemic. Research has shown that one in four youths in the industrialised world suffer from some form of mental health issues while growing up. Youth suicides have been going up steadily around the world in recent years. In Singapore, suicides among youths aged 10 to 19 have doubled year over year.
More and more young people are engaging in self-harm. What we’re seeing is only the tip of the iceberg, as the pressure, expectation and stress of living in modern society continue to grow. For many, life increasingly feels like a treadmill that they can’t get off, while others experience a growing sense of loneliness, isolation and disconnect despite living in an age of digital super-connectivity.
COVID-19 has only exacerbated the situation, especially among youths. It has now become a crisis that needs immediate attention and action.
What inspires your work?
I’m very passionate about youth, youth empowerment and youth wellbeing. Young people are the future of our world. In the past 10 years, primarily through the work of our foundation, I’ve become a youth advocate, mental wellbeing champion, a social innovator, philanthropist and humanist, and seeker of truth.
This is what gets me up and going each morning. I love to inspire people because I love to be inspired. Inspiration is freedom; it’s very uplifting. I love talking to inspirational people.
How do you work with young people?
Much of my work is about taking youth empowerment to the next level by working with young change-makers who wish to embark on the journey to change the world by first changing themselves. This involves unlocking their deep human potential, discovering who they are, connecting to their heart, reconnecting with their higher self, and realising their full potential as human beings.
How can parents recognise that their teen may be mentally suffering?
The teenage years of a person’s life usually warrant special attention due to the stage of life they’re going through. Teenage depression isn’t just bad moods and the occasional melancholy; it’s a serious problem that impacts every aspect of a teen’s life. Teen depression can lead to drug and alcohol abuse, self-loathing and selfmutilation, pregnancy, violence – even suicide. But, as a concerned parent, there are many ways you can help. Talking about the problem and offering support can go a long way toward getting your teenager back on track.
The most helpful thing a parent can do is to listen and empathise with their child’s feelings, concerns and so on.
How do we identify what our child needs in the moment?
In any crisis, many just need some emotional support to get through a difficult and challenging moment, and then they’re usually able to carry on. In fact, a majority may not need any fullblown clinical intervention in coping with their challenges or life stressors. Studies have also shown that the preferred first contact among young people who need help is usually an informal contact rather than a counsellor or therapist.
What support is available?
There are more and more support services available now than ever. We also have many programmes (mostly self-care and self-help) at Over-The-Rainbow targeted at youth mental wellness.
More recently, we launched OTR Listens (OTRListens.net), an online support platform and community anchored by a real-time, one-to-one, text-based chat support service provisioned by trained volunteers (Listeners). The service allows youths to anonymously share their emotions, concerns, challenges and aspirations, whilst being listened to in a non-judgemental way.
What has your personal tragedy and subsequent work taught you?
That happiness, wellbeing and transformation are possible. They are within your grasp. In fact, happiness is within you. There’s no need to try to find happiness elsewhere. Find your purpose and your calling, and follow your heart. What we give, we get in return. When you plant seeds of happiness, healing, transformation and wellbeing in others, you reap these same rewards. For more information or to enquire about volunteering opportunities, email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations are also accepted via give.sg at overtherainbow.sg.
Other crisis support services
• Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH): 1800 283 7019 • IMH Helpline: 6389 2222 (Mental Health Crisis)
• National Care Hotline:
1800 202 6868
• Samaritans of Singapore (SOS): 1800 221 4444
• Support for Eating Disorders Singapore (SEDS): eatingdisorders@ sgh.com.sg