Talking About Adjustment

“The late Professor Albus Dumbledore, of Harry Potter fame, once said that “Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it”. When it comes to adjustment and mental health issues faced by NUS students, my hope is that the same promise can and will continue to apply.”

Many years ago, when Westlife was a relatively new band, I was an international undergraduate student in a country several time zones away. During my second week living there, while walking down one of the streets in the university neighbourhood, a glass beer bottle was thrown at my head by someone in a passing vehicle. A drive by bottling, if you will. Thankfully, the thrower was probably quite drunk (it must have been good beer) and the missile zinged past my head to crash loudly but harmlessly onto the concrete. I deliberately chose to keep on walking but distinctly heard the rowdy rejoinder that I should consider myself unwelcome and ‘go back to my country’, as the vehicle sped off into the growing dusk.

Some months later I was in a cafe that served, among other foods, “Singapore noodles”. Naturally, everyone in Singapore surely knows what “Singapore noodles” is, because it is so famous that it is even known overseas. I had patronised that establishment many times before and simply brushed off that menu item with a shrug and a good natured chuckle. That particular occasion, though, something just clicked inside of me and I felt a wave of homesickness pulling me in like an unexpected riptide.

My first story, which might be considered a hostile experience, and the second situation in which I described feeling homesick, are but two examples of the many faced psychosocial coin called “Adjustment”. I learnt to anticipate and dodge bottles better and mostly got over my homesickness, but was powerless to eradicate “Singapore noodles” which, to my knowledge, remain a staple menu item to this day.

Briefly defined, adjustment is a process through which two systems in agitation move more closely into equilibrium. Note that I say ‘move more closely’ and not ‘inevitably come into’. Most people manage everyday adjustments quite capably, such as adapting to an uncomfortably cold air-conditioned room by avoiding the draft or putting on a layer of clothing. Other kinds of adjustment, like entering a new culture, school, workplace, cohort, or even a new country, can take a lot more time and effort to get used to. Sometimes, we never fully adjust, but we generally cope with or adapt to the imperfections of life and move on. Sometimes we don’t do so well, and that is where the chronic stress from feeling like one does not belong becomes a subversive, silent and (not always) subtle drain on our health. Struggles with adjustment take a heavy toll on ourselves, our friends and our families. They can often affect our grades too, whether directly in the form of lower CAP scores or indirectly in requiring us to work ‘extra hard’ just to keep up with others. These struggles can make us second guess whether we deserve to attend or can ever belong in a place like NUS and/or Singapore. Even when struggles are very obvious, painful and difficult, they can sometimes feel like issues that are not “real problems” worthy of talking about, let alone seeking professional help for.

Adjustment struggles get called unhelpful and even inaccurate names like “weakness”, “just a phase”, “growing pains” and “grow some *******”. Adjustment can affect people regardless of race, language, or religion. It does not discriminate based on what schools people attended, what courses they are in or whether they have lived in Singapore for twenty years or twenty hours. Adjustment difficulties can strike fresh first years as easily as they can rear their heads in the lives of seasoned students many semesters in. In all cases, help is available. The reality, thankfully, is that adjustment and maladjustment are now much better understood today than when Westlife was a new band, and people today don’t need to struggle with stigma as much as previous generations often had to.

If there was just one message that I would like this brief piece to convey, it is that “Adjustment” is a legitimate and treatable issue.

Will people get better on their own? Maybe, but also maybe not. What is perhaps more clear is that there is no longer any particular virtue in suffering needlessly, especially when professional and confidential help for adjustment and other mental health concerns is available (#ShamelessPlug) free to all full-time NUS students.*

The late Professor Albus Dumbledore, of Harry Potter fame, once said that “Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it”. When it comes to adjustment and mental health issues faced by NUS students, my hope is that the same promise can and will continue to apply.

*NUS staff can approach the University Health Service for a referral to a counsellor or psychiatrist if they have a mental health concern.

All staff and students can contact NUS University Counselling Services at (+65 6516 2373 / and the 24hour NUS LifeLine (+65 6516 7777) for acute distress and psychological emergencies.

About the author

Benjamin Tan completed his education in Singapore, Australia and the United States and currently practices as a Counselling Psychologist at NUS’ University Counselling Services. In his spare time, which he sometimes thinks is a figment of his imagination, he cycles, volunteers, and ponders mysteries of the universe like how the floor that he mopped just the day before is dusty again.

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