SINGAPORE: Five years ago, the world collapsed on Leela Jesudason when her older sister, Mallika, was killed by her paranoid schizophrenic son.
Sujay Solomon Sutherson stabbed his mom, 56, twice in the neck during an argument. He was jailed for life.
This double heartbreak of losing both a sister and, in a way, a nephew sank Ms Jesudason into a world of grief and guilt for months – until she decided to fulfil a promise that she made to her late sister.
“At her eulogy, I said her death would not be in vain,” said Ms Jesudason.
“I was, at that point, grappling with what I could do to help people like my sister. Seeing her struggle all those years to deal with the problem, I wanted to see how I could help others to get the help that I wish my sister had had.”
Ms Jesudason, together with her elder brother, psychiatrist Dr Munidasa Winslow and another partner, set up PSALT Care to help those living with mental illness and addictions, which includes the patients, their families and friends.
‘SOMEONE’S STARING AT ME’
Mallika had been straining to care for her eldest son who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia – a condition in which a chemical imbalance in the brain causes one to lose touch with reality and experience hallucinations, delusions or suspicions that people are plotting against them.
Ms Jesudason recalled how Sujay, when he was young, used to “light up a room when he walked in”. But in his teenage years, he became more withdrawn, and the symptoms got progressively worse.
“He would close all the windows and curtains, and he would have the television on incessantly… He would say, ‘I’m very sure that someone in that block is looking in here and staring at me’,” she said, in an episode of the programme On The Red Dot.
Eventually, he was admitted to the Institute of Mental Health and diagnosed. After five months he was released – but he didn’t take his medication as he was supposed to, said Ms Jesudason.
“My sister tried her best to reach out, he didn’t want to talk to her either,” she said.
“He deteriorated to such a point that on a fateful day, he crossed the line that no one ever imagined.”
She remembers being in London on a business trip in May 2012, when she received the horrifying news of the murder from her sister-in-law.
Sujay had tried to dispose of his mom’s body by burning it, and failing this, he had hidden her body under his bed.
His brother, sister and uncle found the body and called the police.
Ms Jesudason was hit by “an incredible sense of guilt that I should have done more and… because I couldn’t do anything more”.
She tried to bury herself in work, but was slowly falling apart in misery over the months. Until her older son stepped in.
“He said to me, ‘I don’t like what you’re doing, mom, it’s scaring me. You just go to work, and you come home, and you coop (yourself up). It seems like you don’t have the rest of your life’.
“That sort of shook me up a little bit,” she said.
That’s when she turned to Dr Winslow, executive director of Promises Healthcare, a mental health & addictions consultancy, for help to work through her grief.
After counselling sessions, she became driven with a renewed sense of purpose – to fulfil her vow to her sister, and find a way to help those grappling with the demons of mental illness. Thus the support network, PSALT Care, was formed.
About one in 10 people in Singapore suffer from a mental disorder, according to a 2010 study.
And many caregivers, like Ms Jesudason’s sister Mallika, themselves face issues and problems such as stress, financial worries and isolation when caring for their loved one afflicted with mental illness.
“When you’re dealing with someone who is mentally ill, it’s a non-stop demand on the family’s time, energy, and it’s emotionally draining,” she said.
My sister was in her way depressed, and stuck in the cycle of ‘I have to just take care of him, that’s all I’m here for’. She didn’t really see any way out of that vicious cycle.
With PSALT Care – which runs various self-help support groups and works with students to raise awareness about mental health – Ms Jesudason wants caregivers to feel empowered, refreshed and encouraged.
“The taking care of caregivers is a big part of what I want to do, because that helps me allay the guilt a little bit, that I didn’t take care enough of my sister who was a caregiver,” she said.
Watch: Finding purpose in tragedy (3:14)
STILL A PART OF THEIR FAMILY
She and her family have also reached out to her nephew in jail, who is now under constant medication.
They make video calls to Sujay every three weeks, where they get to update him on their lives and remind him that he’s still part of the family.
“We want him to enjoy our company and not feel that he’s been judged. We try to be as encouraging and helpful as possible, given that there’s so little for him to look forward to,” she said.
Every time I come out of that, I feel so sad and I’m reminded again that it wasn’t just my sister’s life that was taken that day, but his too.
The family have come a long way since the tragedy, with each other’s support. For Ms Jesudason, the road to healing will always involve helping others to become survivors as well.
“It’s going to be a long-term coping mechanism, a tribute to her life, a celebration of what she stood for – and a recognition of what Sujay is going through still, and will probably go through until the end of his days,” she said.
“I think I’m on the road to fulfilling my promise, and probably until I draw my last breath, I will always feel that there is more that I can do.”
Watch the full episode of On The Red Dot here. New episodes every Friday, 9.30pm on Mediacorp Channel 5.