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Solving Our Own Problems
Wesley Chan is a third-year PPL student at King's and during the pandemic he co-founded a mutual peer support community for students to focus on their mental health. KBR editor Alessia Garcia talks to him about his story.
15 November, 2021

I haven’t seen Wes in nearly two years. I remember seeing him right before his flight to Vietnam for Chinese New Year 2020 – he had joked at the time about the coronavirus and I, on my way to the tutorial he just left, laughed with him. Little did we both know that this would soon take over our lives, exacerbating every issue we had thought to bury for the sake our academic performance, social life, and personal sanity. While I flew Cathay Pacific to Manila, Wes flew to Hong Kong. And while I felt safe because I was flying home, the foundations of Wes’s home were being tested and, as of late, almost completely disappeared. With the lack of a safe space, Wes sought to create his own. Seeing the needs of others around him prompted him to help those around him dealing with mental health issues – and in the process, finding some clarity and purpose within himself. 

The Shelter

I caught up with Wes recently via a Teams call to talk to him about the social enterprise focussing on mental health he had set up in his hometown of Hong Kong. Simply called the  ‘Shelter’, the enterprise is a safe space for anyone to come in and work on their mental health. Wes had met a Nursing student who had founded an Instagram page used to help students as young as in secondary school deal with their mental health problems. Wes himself had started an NGO back when he was in secondary school – one that helped asylum seekers in Hong Kong navigate the system – and upon his return, he thought that he could help turn this Instagram page into an enterprise with more of a structure to address an issue that he felt was pertinent. Wes shares that he helped found the Shelter to create a space where these young students can feel safe enough to reflect and find support. He emphasises that they are not professionals – what they sought out to do should not be construed as therapy. But Wes shares that their social enterprise seeks to target what he has identified as that grey area – the one between where a mental health problem is an issue as opposed to an actual health diagnosis. We all deal with stress, and it is always on a spectrum. What these students may be feeling may not be diagnosable conditions, but they are still issues – important ones – and Wes feels that it is important that we talk about them. Together, they rent a space in an art centre, and arrange activities  for the students to do. These activities are all planned in advance, and each month features a theme that centres on reflection and a sense of community and support. By doing crafts, discussing books, and watching movies, the Shelter has provided these students with opportunities to reflect, and has created a safe space to share their struggles with others. Wes shares that, sometimes it’s as simple as knowing you’re not alone. And more than hearing it from a superior, or someone who thinks it’s the right thing to say without actually knowing what it entails, Wes and his friends understand that the emphasis should be on building two-way relationships where students know that they’re not alone and that they can rely on another person to be there and walk the journey to better mental health with them. 

What struck me was Wes’s seemingly never-ending well of compassion for those around him – readers of Humans of KCL will remember him writing about how he felt the pandemic had irreversibly changed the direction of his life. He had always been the ‘lawyer kid’ – the one who had a clear and direct path to a career in law – an unstoppable force. But with the pandemic ravaging the world, and another, arguably more deadly, force threatening the safety of his city, Wes was no longer sure of his path. Speaking to him, it was evident that he was living with only thoughts for the immediate future (such as writing a formative that was overdue, and spending time with his little sisters who were growing up so quickly). But this fear of falling, this uncertainty for his future, he attacked with purpose and an open mind. By arranging this safe space for his peers, Wes has imbibed the spirit of camaraderie he himself has needed which he has tried to foster and it has given him clarity. For example, the theme of the reflections for the Shelter this month is ‘how to die’ – seemingly counterintuitive, but Wes points out to me that it is only when we know how to die that we realise how we want to live. I take that in for some time; Wes shares that coming home has been bittersweet. Faced with the reality of the worsening political situation in Hong Kong, he shares that he has had to face many of his fears by imagining what he would do if they became real. 

‘So much of what you’re afraid of is because you don’t know what to do,’ he says, ‘I used to be so scared, but now I’m okay.’ 

On Resilience and Returning

When asked about if he’s excited to come back to campus in January, Wes says it should be a break from the obligations he’s created for himself at home (we both laugh when I point out that he’s the only person I’ve met who’s referred to university work as a break). But it does make him anxious to leave. Although he is assured that the Shelter will continue to function without him (in true Wes fashion, the next few months have already been planned, and should run smoothly without him), his priorities have most certainly shifted. He hopes that this initiative can continue, and maybe even brought to London – the importance of having a safe space is not unique to the situation of the residents of Hong Kong – but as always with this pandemic, nothing can be set in stone. However, one thing is for certain: Wes, as well as many of our generation, have come to recognise that our wellbeing should be a priority and that we are not weak for doing so. We all need a safe space, a shelter, to remind us that life is not out there for us to achieve, and that sometimes, all we need is for someone to listen.

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