Now more than ever, mental wellness has become an important issue to many, whether it is because of an illness or an overwhelming amount of stress. With millions suffering from depression and other forms of mental conditions, some have reached out to find practical solutions to address the matter and help those in need.
Enoch Li is a social entrepreneur who founded Bearapy in 2017, in hopes to spread her unique ideas on advocating mental health through the power of playfulness. Bearapy is an organizational consultancy that focuses on workplace mental health, threading through leadership development, employee engagement and company culture. With personal experience in burnout and clinical depression herself, Enoch is able to bring a personal touch and to empathize with those in similar plights. She continues to develop her research and theories in the psychology of adult playfulness, and is a frequent speaker and social commentator on topics of mental resilience, burnout, and women's leadership.
In this first part of interview with Enoch, we invited her to talk about her life story and discuss why "play" is not only for children but also for adults who are looking to relieve stress and anxiety.
Enoch: The main inspiration was from my depression and burnout 10 years ago. Back then, I was working in a banking environment in the corporate sector. When I was going through it, I felt very alone in the beginning because I thought I was the only one going through that experience. However, as I started writing about my depression, it kind of became a therapy session that my therapist taught me to do because he knew I liked writing. Then, I started to realize there were other people going through this phase because they started writing to me on my blog, which was extremely unexpected because I started the blog for myself.
Through that procedure, I slowly learned about mental health, depression, and anxiety, and I realized that there are actually a lot of people in this world with depression. As we are talking right now, there are 300 million people around the world with depression, according to the WHO.
Back then, I took medication, psychotherapy, Chinese traditional medicine and acupuncture, but my Western conventional side was something that I discovered unexpectedly through "Play". I can tell you the story when I didn't leave home for about a month and when I was really in the most serious stage of my depression. At the time, I didn't eat much, either slept too much or did not sleep, lost a lot of weight and cut a lot of social contacts. However, my boyfriend who is now my husband, managed to drag me out to a shopping mall, which was near where we lived in Beijing. We passed by a toyshop. He had to go to the toilet, and as he came out, he saw me standing there at the toyshop, looking at a stuffed animal bear and smiling at it. At that moment, he said to himself, "if that makes her smile, I'm gonna buy her that bear because she hasn't smiled in a month". He bought the bear, asked me to give it a name and a personality. I called him Floppy just off the top of my head. He asked me why, and I told him it's because he doesn't do much and just flops around watching TV all day. Slowly as time went by, I got more bears and each bear had a name and personality. They were either gifts from my friends or bought by myself.
After that, if I fast forward it to a few years later when I studied organizational psychology and started researching into "playfulness" for organizations, that was when I discovered that what I was doing with these bears was "Play" – Play in a way, is where I externalized and projected parts of myself, especially the parts that I did not like so much onto the bear, in order to process and understand myself. It was a process of self-awareness, self-discovery, and also self-acceptance. That was when I really became interested in Play, and I remember when I talked about this to my business school classmates when studying organizational psychology, I said, "oh maybe adults need to play. Growing up in Hong Kong, we always just do exams, competitions, homework, which is probably the same across many Asian cities". Then, I had this idea about advocating play in organizations and mental health. Everyone looked at me like I was crazy and said that it was not gonna work because play is for kids.
In the beginning, Bearapy was a photoblog. When I had these bears, I traveled with them, made up stories for them and took pictures of them. I'm sure many people looked at me like "what is wrong with this person, why does she have a teddy bear with her", but it was also a process of saying to myself that it doesn't really matter what other people think of me, how people judge me, or how they see me. In some ways, it was another process of understanding what the norms are in society and asking myself if I accept these norms or not, and if not, how would I build new norms for myself.
All these questions are built into the whole idea of Bearapy, from the simple blog to the consulting for organizations and looking at mental wellness for employees. Mental wellness isn't just doing our exercise, it's a lot more about our self-awareness, and being able to ask ourselves difficult questions to get to know ourselves and in some way confront ourselves as well. I think the inspiration comes from there, partially personal experience, partially what I wanted to advocate, and partially from my stubbornness to prove my classmates wrong.
Enoch: I think the first step is to ask ourselves what "play" is to us.
Play can be everything and anything. The easiest example for many people would be sports or games with our friends. The idea of playfulness goes much deeper, as it is also a way of communicating, learning and understanding ourselves.
First, we can take a few moments to think back into our childhood to find what we like to play with, what we can do for hours and hours and not get bored by getting ourselves lost in it. Then think about that feeling, and when we can think about that feeling, grasp it and think about what we can do now as an adult to recreate that feeling. Is it on my own, is it with other people, or is it with toys? Is it just sitting by the window and daydreaming? Is it looking at a picture of trees?
It can actually be very simple. One of the HR executives I worked with, he just needed to skip down the road a little bit every day, and I thought that was brilliant. He told me he started doing that in the office with skips from the desk to the toilet, and in the beginning, he told me that the team kind of looked at him like he was crazy. Nevertheless, "play" is also contagious. He has gotten his colleagues to do the same and even sillier things, like a crab walk or a sideways walk. It's something different from what we are used to in our routines, and it could just take a few minutes.
Bearapy comprises a team of experts and facilitators to customize the most appropriate solution for our clients.
Our Consultants and Facilitators are certified in multiple trainings systems including: psychology, art therapy, body movement, play psychology, team dynamics, leadership and have background in corporate and management.
We also have a suite of partners with whom we work to provide a full suite of services for clients, particularly a close relationship with Encompass HK to cover wider diversity & inclusion initiatives in Asia Pacific.
We care about people and most of our team have personal experiences with psychosocial challenges that enable us to work with others in an empathetic way. We consult from experience and do not just follow the wellness fads.