Healing pain, out on the farm

Healing pain, out on the farm

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Jonathan Wong
John Suen (in orange T-shirt) teaches pupils how to make cookies at a baking class at New Life Interactive Farm in Tuen Mun. Photo: Jonathan Wong

People recovering from mental illness are learning new social skills at a centre in Tuen Mun, writes Mabel Sieh

The room is filled with the scent of rosemary and the sound of happy families busy baking their own cookies.

'Remember to add the egg mixture very slowly,' John Suen, the leader of this baking workshop under the Eco-tourism Project at New Life Interactive Farm, reminds his class. 'This is the trick.'

At 51, Suen, looks no different from any average man. However, two years ago, his life was totally different. Before he came to the New Life Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association, the non-governmental organisation behind the farm in Tuen Mun, he was suffering from mental illness.

'I was very depressed then and I was afraid to talk to people,' he says. He has been working as a tour guide at the New Life Interactive Farm for six months. His major duties include introducing visitors to eco-tourism, running workshops, growing plants and looking after the farm tools. 'I love giving tours and talking to the visitors. The air is so fresh here. I feel happy just smelling the herbs. It's so relaxing.'

The farm has an herb garden, among other facilities, where visitors can take a guided tour to pick their herbs to cook later.

But Suen still remembers the dark days back when he worked in the hotel industry.

'Work was very demanding. We got shouted at a lot whenever there were complaints [from guests]. Though the money was good, life was very hard,' he recalls.

Ide Mok Yim-ping, an occupational therapist who is in charge of the eco-tourism project, says: 'Medical experts have told us that there are many possible causes behind mental illnesses. Life stress is one of the triggering factors and a lack of coping skills will make it worse.'

Mok has been with the association for 13 years, and before that she worked at the Castle Peak psychiatric hospital.

The Eco-tourism Project is one of the 19 social enterprises set up by the association to offer rehabilitation services to help recovering mentally ill patients. Since its launch in 2006, the project has benefited 68 people.

'Our mission is to provide vocational and social skill training to them so they can go back to work. Having a normal work life is important for them,' Mok says.

In the eco-tourism team, there are eight members with four ex-patients including Suen. 'What they need is one thing: to be accepted by others. People who don't understand them but only hear the negative news think they are violent. But actually they are timid people who worry about how others look at them,' Mok says.

Joyce Cheung was one of the participants in John's cooking class. It was her second visit to the farm.

'They [the ex-patients] are helpful and caring. The government should provide more resources, and not just money, to help them adjust to life again,' Cheung says.

As for Suen, he is happy with his life at the moment.

'I want a peaceful life, nothing more,' he says.

I love giving tours and talking to the visitors. The air is so fresh here.

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