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Volunteering their time to provide emotional support

Volunteering their time to provide emotional support

Everyone needs an outlet to vent, a shoulder to cry on or someone to turn to for emotional support.

When there is no avenue to “offload”, life’s challenges and stressors can seem daunting. Little things can add up and trigger disruptive, negative or suicidal thoughts.

When the mind is disturbed, it wreaks havoc on the body. And on other people.

There is a rising prevalence of those with mental health issues in the country.

Based on the National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) 2015, the prevalence of mental health issues among adults above 16 years of age is 29.2%, or 4.2 million Malaysians.

Mental health problems are a growing public health concern globally, and by 2020, it is expected to be the second biggest health problem affecting Malaysians after heart disease.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is the leading cause of disability as measured by “years lived with disability” and the fourth contributor to the global burden of disease.

So who does one turn to for help or to talk things out?

While we’ve all heard of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Befrienders, there is another organisation that has also been offering free counselling services for the past 27 years.

Call-in counselling

The Buddhist Gem Fellowship Counselling Unit (BGFCU) came into being in 1992 with a telephone counselling service to help individuals cope with the pressures of modern living.

The NGO also provides information and referral services, so that the client or caller will have the most competent resource to help them handle their problem.

“We saw a need for it back then and formed the unit with a group of people with counselling qualifications.

“Our unit comprises all volunteers who initially manned the helpline twice a week. With increasing demand, we’re now open for two hours daily from Monday to Friday,” says BGFCU main coordinator Wong Chung Heong.

People call in with a variety of problems, and not just relationship issues.

“Lately, we’re seeing an increase in callers and their issues range from problems with parents, children, siblings, bosses, lecturers, studies, work, sexual orientation, grief, bereavement, etc,” says Wong.

BGFCU training coordinator Siew Yin Heng adds: “In January, we saw a peak in calls just before the Chinese New Year, when the stress level goes up.

“Many of these calls are from young people saying they are being urged to get married or find a partner.

“They feel pressured to face their parents and relatives when they return for the celebrations, which shouldn’t be the case.

“We’re here to provide emotional support. Maybe at that time, you just need to vent or talk to someone because you feel lonely or misunderstood.

“People feel ‘listened to’ when talking to someone who is non-judgemental.”

Lonely, stressed, misunderstood, counselling, emotional support, Buddhist Gem Fellowship Counselling Unit, volunteer work, Chinese New Year, hometown, family pressure, Star2.com

Aside from the stress of rushing back to hometowns for the Chinese New Year celebrations, seen in this filepic, many young people feel the pressure to either find a partner or settle down, resulting in the need for a non-judgmental ear.

Extensive training

A year after being set up and with more people calling them, BGFCU started offering annual counselling courses and training to recruit more volunteers for the ongoing telephone counselling service.

“However, the course went beyond this objective as participants brought home with them some basic counselling knowledge and skills that also benefit them in their day-to-day living through better communication and interpersonal skills.

“It also enhanced their sense of empathy.

“We want to educate participants on key mental health issues so that they are able to recognise and identify mental health needs, know where to seek help and hopefully seek help when they face their own issues. It’s all about self-awareness and coping.

“If, after attending the training, the participants agree to be a volunteer for the telephone counselling service, then it is a bonus!” says Siew, a registered counsellor.

Over the years, the BGFCU has undergone many revamps, and today, provides intensive training to participants with the aim of producing para-counsellors (firstline counsellors) who have basic counselling skills to provide emotional support to those who are in distress.

“The ability to show empathy, compassion, genuine concern and unconditional acceptance of the client is generally how we define emotional support.

“If the para-counsellor isn’t able to handle the caller, he or she passes it on the supervisor, who is usually a registered counsellor,” says Siew.

Some of the topics in the training course include conflict resolution skills, mental and emotional impact of stress, lifelong human development, effective listening in counselling, self awareness etc, and the speakers comprise experts in the industry.

It takes around 18 months to become as a para-counsellor. Volunteers are assessed thoroughly before they are allowed to man the phone lines.

Siew reasons, “Remember, we’re dealing with a vulnerable person, so we don’t want volunteers who might stress people out further, hence our selection criteria is very important.

“During the training period, we do a lot of self-help sessions.”

Para-counsellors are encouraged to actively pursue continuous learning, and in support of this, BGFCU has started to conduct six full day workshops this year to assist them in sharpening their helping skills.

Wong says, “There are participants who loved the training so much that they brought other family members in and all have become our volunteers!”

There are currently 27 volunteers on the team, comprising para-counsellors and counsellors, who use mostly English as a medium of communication.

Lonely, stressed, misunderstood, counselling, emotional support, Buddhist Gem Fellowship Counselling Unit, volunteer work, Wong Chung Heong, Siew Yin Heng, Star2.com

Siew (left) and Wong are here to help individuals cope with the pressures of modern living. — KAMARUL ARIFFIN/The Star

The callers

Each person who calls in is allocated 40 minutes and remains anonymous throughout the counselling session.

Only their age range and state they’re calling from are required in order to help BGFCU build a database.

Many of these callers are first-timers.

Wong says, “They may call an average of three or four times, then they don’t call any more, so we assume they are okay.

“Sometimes they feel comfortable with a certain para-counsellor and may want to speak to the same person again.

“We don’t talk to minors below 18, so we refer them to a professional.

“Usually, our cases are not so serious because the callers are all functional adults.

“And because we don’t operate 24 hours and have limited resour-ces, if it’s a suicidal case, we refer them to Befrienders.”

If there is a call complaining of abuse, whether physically, emotionally or verbally, the volunteers get informed consent and report the incident to the respective authorities.

“If there is a need, we ask them for their next-of-kin’s name, but we don’t ask them immediately, because a lot of times, they are not very receptive. This information is entirely voluntary though.

“For religious problems, we refer them because we are not trained in spiritual counselling,” says Wong, a former nurse, who has been a para-counsellor with BGFCU since it was established.

Siew explains that callers are given a “psycho-education” over the phone.

“If a caller says there is domestic violence, we don’t interrogate them as it pushes them away. Instead, we tell them where to go to seek help.

“We don’t contact them afterwards either. We teach them to empower themselves.

“Our role is not to advise, but to listen without prejudice.

“Many people say they are being pushed to ‘do the right thing’, but we cannot tell you what this ‘right thing’ is in one session.

“So we give you information for you to act on,” she says.

If the session is an effective one, the caller would be able to come up with a plan or experience self-realisation.

Siew says, “We trigger their awareness and allow them to see that there is a way out.

“When they share, they’re actually listening to themselves and start questioning themselves.

“It’s also a way for personal growth. A lot of us cannot see our own strengths.”

For the volunteers, there is a monthly talk session (for them to talk and share) after their “services” to help them unload what’s on their minds. Talking is therapeutic.

BGFCU hopes to reach out more to the public to let them know that help is always there, no matter how dire the situation may seem.

“We’re targeting working adults to help them cope with small stressors before they escalate out of control.

“Oftentimes, when stress is work-related, you don’t talk about it with your family members, or vice versa. We want to bridge this gap.” says Wong.

The BGFCU helpline is available from 7.30pm to 9.30pm, Monday to Friday. If you need advice or a listening ear, call 03-7859 9610/9682.
Malaysian designers present classic yet modern bridalwear for 2019

Malaysian designers present classic yet modern bridalwear for 2019

Wondering what’s big in bridalwear at the moment? Well, there are no definitive trends that actually stand out, but one thing’s for sure – designers are focusing on a balance between the old and new this season.

Think of gowns with modern cuts and silhouettes, but with the use of traditional fabrics instead. Even the beautiful embellishments are done in such a way that they denote a more classic or retro feel.

Here, we round up three Malaysian designers who have taken a step back in time with their bridalwear.

Feminine Appeal

Alia Bastamam draws inspiration from the Gardens of Babylon for her 2019 bridalwear. Her recent fashion presentation saw models walking a runway surrounded by majestic columns.

In contrast to the greens and earthy shades of the themed setting, white symbolises the purity of the Alia Bastamam bride on her most special day. Lush lace adds richness, while accents of gold enhances the luxe feel.

“But I wanted to see beyond their beauty,” Alia explains. “I looked deeper and into our fascinating female qualities, which we shouldn’t be afraid to lay bare, like our innocence and bravery.”

According to her, the collection plays on female characteristics. She says: “Melding the inner facets of a woman with my own idea of this ‘Garden’, I’ve created looks that strike a chord with me.

The wedding dresses go above and beyond in denoting class and sophistication. This can be observed in the clever use of graceful draping and subtle, tasteful embellishments.


Alia Bastamam draws inspiration from the Gardens of Babylon for her 2019 bridalwear. Photo: Alia Bastamam

Alia, who is known for her feminine and sensual designs, is very much a household name among women who value luxe wardrobe essentials. Launched in 2010, her label also offers everyday made-to-measure creations.

Rich In Detail

The latest bridalwear from Fiziwoo is described as “filled with wonder and intricacy”. In this regard, the sophisticated designs bring together traditional silhouettes with modern elements.

Although a little sombre, the designs have a touch of gracefulness to them. They are seen as rightly demure, and lend a tone of sobriety to the occasion.

Feminine fabrics like tulle set the mood for love in this year’s collection. Soft yet hard, romantic yet edgy. These are the contrasting elements that define the creations.

Comprising 17 dresses, the collection portrays a rich variety of couture techniques. From intricate beading to hand pleating and embroidery, they offer the best of a meticulous craftsmanship.


Fiziwoo designs bring together traditional silhouettes with modern elements. Photo: Fiziwoo

The Fiziwoo label was founded by Mohd Hafizi in 2009. He was joined by Izree Kai Haffiz two years later, and today, the duo count the cream of Malaysian society as their customers.

Sleek And Chic

Traditional with a twist. Such is the aesthetic that Rico Rinaldi is aiming for when it comes to his 2019 bridal designs. They include 20 looks that is made for all types of women.

From a classic piece that takes the form of a trendy dress to a songket material kebaya with signature embellishments, as well as long white wedding gowns – his label has it all.

Most looks take on the basic corseted silhouette. This is in addition to body hugging numbers featuring layers of tulle and tiered pleated dresses with crystals and laser-cut finishing.

“Modern brides prefer something simple,” says Rico. “I tried really hard at keeping things sleek and clean. Although, I can’t help but play with fabrics like lace, or even songket.”

His muse for the year (as seen in the campaign pictures) is none other than Malaysian actress Daiyan Trisha. Fresh, young, fun and modern, she is just the person to bring together the concept of old and new.

“She is the perfect muse because this year’s collection is simple yet eye-catching. I would like to think that it is suitable for young brides,” explains Rico, who has been a designer since 2006.

“Daiyan herself has released a new single called Langit, in which the video portrays a wedding mood. She is very young, fun to work with and very easy to handle,” he adds.


Rico Rinaldi matches modern silhouettes with traditional fabrics and embellishments. Photo: Rico Rinaldi

Tia is trying to reinvent women’s health. We visited the startup’s first clinic to get a checkup and see how it’s different from a normal doctor’s office.

Tia is trying to reinvent women’s health. We visited the startup’s first clinic to get a checkup and see how it’s different from a normal doctor’s office.

The reception area at Tia's clinic in New York's Flatiron neighborhood.

The reception area at Tia’s clinic in New York’s Flatiron neighborhood.
Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

For women’s health startup Tia, an app alone wasn’t going to cut it.

Tia was founded in 2016 by former Googler Carolyn Witte and her Cornell classmate and friend Felicity Yost. The company started as an app, which included a chatbot and symptom-tracking technology. Witte and Yost would often personally answer health-related questions that women had.

Along the way, they were joined by Tia’s chief medical officer, Dr. Stephanie McClellan, an OB/GYN who began by giving Yost and Witte advice as to what they could and couldn’t tell people through the app. She went on to advise them on what Tia should do to redefine healthcare. That would mean going beyond an app and pulling together a physical space where women could get care.

“We couldn’t just build technology in a vacuum,” Witte said. “We needed to put it in the hands of patients and providers in a physical space.”

So in March, the team opened its first clinic in New York City.

As part of my experiment to get all of my healthcare taken care of virtually or through new models that offer more access, I picked Tia for my women’s health needs.

Since moving to New York, I’ve always had a difficult time with my appointments with gynecologists. Of all my routine healthcare visits it’s the appointment that takes the most time to go through, from waiting in the lobby to waiting in the exam room or waiting to get blood work or imaging done. Physically, it’s the most uncomfortable, though that can’t really be helped.

Because I’d felt well, I’d skipped going in 2018. I was curious to see if my visit to Tia’s clinic would be all that different.

Here’s what I found.

Tia’s initial clinic is located at 30 East 23rd Street, near Madison Square Park.

Screenshot via Google Maps

The clinic’s located on the seventh floor, accessible when stepping out of the elevator. The building was still under construction when we went.

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

As soon as you walk off the elevator, you’re greeted by a reception desk.

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

The name Tia is a reference to the Spanish word for aunt, alluding to the idea of having a relationship with your healthcare. To date, the company’s raised $6 million.

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

To the right is a small lobby area, which I didn’t see when I went in for my wellness visit. Instead, after signing in on a tablet, one of the women sitting behind the counter walked me to an exam room and began the exam.

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

The clinic has four exam rooms. Patients can get blood work done there, as well as get ultrasound imaging. “We partnered with female artists of all types to curate every component of the space,” Witte said.

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

Witte calls the glass-lined hallway the clinic’s “internet-selfie wall.” The walls have statements like “Women’s health is more than your lady parts,” drawing from some of the messaging Tia’s app uses. “People know Tia from the internet, and they come to life offline,” Witte said.

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

The bathroom has a picture-worthy aesthetic as well. The mirror outlines the shape of the “Tia Power Lady” illustration that shows up throughout the office and online. “The idea is, you look at the mirror and you see the most powerful, confident version of yourself at the doctor’s office,” Witte said.

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

Inside the exam room, I first spotted a pair of socks urging me to “inhale and exhale” that I could put on during my exam.

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

In the exam room, I noticed that there wasn’t a computer monitor. Instead, the woman conducting my exam talked through my medical history and what had brought me in today, projecting it onto a screen via her iPad. I could also look over her shoulder to see the screen.

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

Then, I changed into the robe, bedecked with the Tia power ladies. From there, the exam was similar to others I’ve done, though throughout we discussed a health question I had posed toward the start of our conversation. My provider offered me a number of options I could possibly try to see if it mitigated the problem.

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

I also tried to match my breathing to the screen, which had an image of a circle expanding and contracting, meant to keep me calm during some of the more uncomfortable parts of the well-woman exam.

A guided breathing exercise during some of the more stressful bits of the exam.
Lydia Ramsey/Business Insider

About an hour after I arrived for my appointment, I was done. Headed back to the lobby area, I noticed the sale of supplements. Tia’s approach to healthcare encompasses practices like acupuncture, nutrition, and other comprehensive approaches to healthcare.

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

There’s also a space at the front of the building where Tia holds events that are free to members. For instance, I was invited to a sex-tech event the clinic’s hosting later in April. Members can also sign up for workshops that cost extra, or take part in community acupuncture sessions or other activities.

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

After my visit, I decided to get in touch with my healthcare provider to figure out my next steps. But when I logged back onto Tia and tried to use the messaging service to figure out what I should do next, I saw that it hadn’t launched yet. Yost said that the plan is to launch the messaging feature in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, I could call the clinic to follow up, or message 1-833-CHAT-TIA.

Screenshot via Tia

So far, Tia has signed up about 800 members since launching. The company has capped its membership to deal with the high volume of follow ups and first-time appointments that have come in. Initially, the plan was to have 3,200 members in the first clinic, but Yost said they’ve been rethinking that.

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

“The demand was bigger than we expected,” Witte said.

For the sake of reviewing the service for this article, I connected with the team at Tia to get an appointment on the books. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to use the service.

The clinic is hiring more providers (it started with just one doctor, the team’s CMO, Dr. McClellan), and going forward the hope is to make sure all new members can book a visit within the first 14 days of joining. On Tuesday, Tia put out a blog post walking through more changes it plans to make at its initial location.

Tia plans to open more clinics both in New York and around the country based on interest from app users after figuring out what works or doesn’t work in the initial site.

A drugmaker is accused of using free Las Vegas trips, fancy dinners, spa treatments, and Starbucks gift cards to bribe doctors to sell more of its expensive drug

A drugmaker is accused of using free Las Vegas trips, fancy dinners, spa treatments, and Starbucks gift cards to bribe doctors to sell more of its expensive drug

A pharmaceutical company is accused of resorting to bribing doctors to help sell its drug called Acthar.

A pharmaceutical company is accused of resorting to bribing doctors to help sell its drug called Acthar.
  • A company now owned by the $1 billion drugmaker Mallinckrodt is accused of paying doctors and their office staff “bribes” to increase their prescriptions in a whistleblower lawsuit from two former employees.
  • The US government recently decided to get involved in the whistleblowers’ case.
  • The alleged bribes included Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts gift cards, Las Vegas trips, spa treatments, and sponsored happy hours, according to the suit.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A drugmaker is accused of resorting to bribing doctors and, when that failed, their office staffs to sell its expensive drug, with everything from Starbucks gift cards to free Las Vegas trips, lavish dinners, sponsored happy hours, and karaoke excursions.

The allegations come from a whistleblower lawsuit by two former employees of the company Questcor. Questcor was acquired by the drugmaker Mallinckrodt in 2014. The Pennsylvania district court suit was initially filed in 2012 and unsealed last month because the US government decided to intervene.

Mallinckrodt shares dropped 14% on Tuesday after CNN reported the lawsuit, wiping out more than $200 million in market value.

At the heart of this lawsuit and others is a controversial decades-old drug for infantile spasms called Acthar, which became highly profitable for Mallinckrodt thanks to big price increases and a push for doctors to use it “off-label” for new conditions, including to treat the chronic disease multiple sclerosis.

Acthar cost as much as $150,000 per patient by 2012, according to the whistleblower complaint, much more than a generic steroid alternative, which could cost as little as $800.

The suit alleges that’s why Questcor turned to bribes.

Acthar’s main competitor “is cheaper, requires a shorter course of treatment and is the standard-of-care for treating exacerbations of MS. Questcor’s response to this challenge has been to bribe physicians to prescribe and promote H.P. Acthar Gel instead of Solu-Medrol,” the rival product, the complaint alleges.

Mallinckrodt said in a statement that the lawsuit was years old and that allegations largely have to do with “legacy Questcor conduct.” The company has been cooperating with the Department of Justice and participating in “advanced settlement talks” over the past few months, it said.

“As the lawsuit principally concerns allegations of legacy conduct prior to Mallinckrodt’s acquisition of Acthar Gel, we do not envision any impact to how Mallinckrodt conducts business today,” the statement said. “Mallinckrodt strongly disagrees with the substance of the complaint and the sensational characterization of the allegations.”

Alleged bribes included free junkets to Las Vegas and karaoke excursions, whistleblowers say

The alleged bribes given as examples in the lawsuit vary dramatically.

One star sales specialist took doctors on junkets to Las Vegas and gave them spa treatments, the suit alleges. The salesperson bragged to one of the whistleblowers of her success going on karaoke excursions with Asian physicians, according to the complaint.

Another doctor, who practiced in Yonkers, New York, started prescribing Acthar after being taken to a lavish dinner with her husband and other doctors at a restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Westchester, New York, the complaint alleges.

And when doctors wouldn’t take meetings with salespeople, the suit alleges that sales personnel turned to bribing office staff with Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks gift cards. Some of those gifts were valued at as much as $500, according to the complaint.

Those alleged bribes were just some of the many ways the company is accused in the lawsuit of pushing Acthar prescriptions. Other methods included doling out research funds to doctors who promoted the product and “exorbitant” speaker fees of $2,000 a presentation or even more, the suit alleges.

According to the allegations in the suit, one doctor at the University of Texas was paid $500 a patient for each research trial he led testing out Acthar, plus more to promote the results to doctors all around the US.

“These trials are of dubious scientific value because they were neither placebo-controlled nor double-blind,” the lawsuit says.

“None have been published in peer-reviewed journals, none have led to an application to expand the FDA approval for H.P. Acthar Gel, and none have demonstrated that H.P. Acthar Gel is any more efficacious than Solu-Medrol,” the competitor, the suit says.

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