Moulding better mental health (TheBusinessTimes, 08 Jul 2019)

NO MATTER how much people talk about mental health, there will always be those who hide their issues in order to get by daily, said Center Pottery founder Joan Huang.

Center Pottery is a pottery studio and social enterprise started in 2016 with a mission to bring mental wellness to people through claymaking. Ms Huang, a former doctor, had decided to marry science and art in a bid to help others get through their mental health issues.

This saw the implementation of a pottery class curriculum co-curated with two psychologists from Heart to Heart Psychotherapy and SportsPsych Consulting, which has been met with positive feedback so far.

One of the studio's students for the programme, who goes by the name MP, shared that the safe environment at Center Pottery had helped him in his rehabilitation from drugs and mental issues. Pottery also made him more aware of his anxieties and negative thought patterns.

"Through pottery as the medium, I could channel the negative feelings and anxieties into positive energy through creativity and control techniques taught by the teachers," he said, adding that this has allowed him to feel "useful again" as he is able to make bowls and plates which can be of use to others.

Reflecting on her time as a medical student with a major in Japanese studies, Ms Huang said that back then, she could spend the whole Saturday in the basement meddling with pottery and before she knew it, it was dinner time. She enjoyed the art so much that it was an integral part of her retirement plan.

But that changed when she started working in the healthcare profession and saw others around her struggling with mental health issues. It was then she thought that maybe, medicine wasn't the panacea for everything, especially with conditions such as high functioning depression.

"You can go to work and be absolutely normal when in fact you are very miserable inside and too proud to show it," Ms Huang said.

At the studio, students who disclose their mental health issues would be able to get subsidised rates. As for those who are uncomfortable to do so - there are still the regular classes.

The mindful pottery programme focuses on 5Cs - composure, confidence, cope-ability, cohesion and concentration. It is also conducted at a slower in pace to ensure students stay relaxed and focused on understanding themselves better.

"It's all about framing their perspective, and it is not about making something but rather enjoying the process," Ms Huang said.

Like many social enterprises, the path to balancing the "social" and "enterprise" part of the business did not come easy. Being "very green" in business, the studio initially ran its classes for free for beneficiaries - but this did not come appreciated and people did not show up.

Therefore, the studio moved towards a model where it worked with non-profit organisations to run classes for beneficiaries with token sums.

It started with Bethesda Home, then the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), and subsequently expanded to the Association of Mental Health and Jamiyah Nursing Home.

There was also no approach of "one-size-fits-all" when it came to the programme, hence the studio had to cater and adjust its programme for each beneficiary, especially for patients suffering from dementia or conditions which prevent them from verbalising their thoughts.

The studio also has to strike a balance with its most revenue-generating side of the business, which are its one-time trial classes and corporate bonding classes.

Running a pottery business is also multi-faceted and goes beyond getting people to come for the classes. Potters and staff have to trim the pieces left behind by students, process them and fire them in the kiln.

To save on costs, the studio would fire the pieces from the mental health programme together with the mainstream ones in order to utilise economies of scale.

As for ensuring efficiency when managing different customer groups, the studio has three different computer systems - each for one time students, regular students and online bookings. It also has a book which logs every request - from the number of pieces each student makes to whether or not they want to colour the pieces on their own.

"We try to wrap everything around systems and processes so everyone is familiar with what needs to be done and how it is supposed to be done so we don't lose track of the different clay pieces and everything is very efficient," Ms Huang said.

Working with senior potters has also been helpful in running the studio because they take pride in the art form - possessing discipline and producing high quality work as a result, she added.

Going forward, the studio aims to look into other areas for growth - including education and learning with children. This is while staying through to its mission of mental health.

"If we build a great mental wellness programme and apply what we learnt with the different beneficiaries so far, we won't just be teaching the young ones pottery but also transferring some of the lessons on mental resilience in the curriculum to them," Ms Huang said.

This article is part of a biweekly series highlighting Social Enterprises in Singapore. Social enterprises provide business solutions to address unmet and emerging social needs and gaps. Visit to learn more about these socially impactful companies

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