Peers ‘first line of support’ in ensuring mental health wellness among youths: MCCY’s Edwin Tong
Minster Tong also shared on the multitude of initiatives and support programmes available for Singaporeans dealing with mental health issues.
Mental health and wellness is a concern for Singaporeans that has been escalated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is a topic that the Government is looking into and on Tuesday (Oct 20), Minister for Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) Edwin Tong joined social entrepreneur Isaac Ong for an energetic discussion session over Instagram Live on youth mental wellness.
Minister Tong shared with viewers the avenues of support available for Singaporeans and emphasised how everyone has a part in tackling the stigma surrounding mental illness.
The discussion was the third of Isaac’s Burnout series, a personal project that looks to discuss mental wellness from five different perspectives. The third episode, titled Burnout x Society, is organised by the National Youth Council, Gushcloud Singapore and NOW Academy Singapore, as part of its #AskNOW initiative.
In the session lasting one hour, Issac and Minister Tong shared valuable and sobering insights from local studies. One of it was a 2016 study by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) reporting that one in seven individuals struggle with mental health, with a sharper prevalence found among youths.
From these findings, they discussed a wide range of topics, including technology’s role in contributing to youths’ declining mental health, the breaking of the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and ways forward in building a more inclusive society for mental health issues.
Minister Tong expressed that effectively tackling the trend would first require a clear sight of the problems, which in turn would require openness.
This openness can be expressed in three main ways: To be able to talk about the issues openly, to be able to change our mindsets on mental illnesses and for those afflicted by mental illnesses to find the courage to seek help.
In response to the alarming trends, Minister Tong explained: “This is not [only] a Ministry of Health (MOH) issue. It is also not regarded as a school problem so it is not [only] a Ministry of Education (MOE) issue. We would like to look at [the issue] from a fresh perspective.”
This has led the government to set up an inter-ministry committee, including the MOE, MOH, Ministry of Social and Family Development, and MCCY. The committee aims to tackle the trends through new perspectives and to recognise issues arising through all stages of Singaporean life. Throughout the session, important resources and initiatives were highlighted, each looking towards achieving the three forms of openness identified.
Awareness of the multi-layered nature of the issue has also led to the establishment of initiatives based across different age groups and needs. For students, trained counsellors are available across all schools and Institutes of Higher Learning.
Outside of school, students can engage Family Service Centres, social service agencies, and the Beyond The Label Helpbot online for help and support.
For youths in the workplace, Minister Tong shared on the availability of programmes such as IMH’s Job Club and Singapore Anglican Community Services’ Integrated Employment Services, both of which look to empower and support the reintegration of persons with mental health conditions back into the workplace.
Earlier this year also saw the launch of the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Practices, which took steps to ensure that persons with mental health conditions do not have to declare their mental health conditions in job application forms unless there is a job-related requirement.
For those dissuaded from seeking help due to financial concerns, access to subsidised mental health services is available for public healthcare institutions, polyclinics, and the Community Health Assist Scheme General Practitioners. The MediFund would also serve as a safety net for the needy unable to afford mental health care.
Technology’s prevalence in Singaporeans’ everyday life, particularly with the youths, was brought up as a key topic of discussions in understanding the uptick of mental illnesses.
Minister Tong acknowledged the possibilities and efficiencies brought forth by computers and phones but affirmed the irreplaceability of human interaction.
Throughout the session, Minister Tong emphasised the importance of peer support systems.
“As much as we talk about mental well-being, young people also have to look out for each other because that is the first line of support,” said Minister Tong, calling for those who notice their friends going through mental health issues to respond “positively, encouragingly, and not to stigmatise, downgrade, or denigrate”.
He added: “No one should feel like [their situation is completely helpless] and keep their problems to themselves because you will be able to get support, and I will say that no problem is too big to speak about, to talk about and to overcome with the support of friends.”
The Peer Support Specialist Programme, developed by the National Council of Social Service together with the IMH and mental health organisations, is one such initiative offering training for those in recovery as peer support specialists.
The focus on peer support systems extends to the workplace as well. From November 2020, the Health Promotion Board will be rolling out Peer Support @ Work Workshops to help employees better understand how and what it means to be a peer supporter at work.
Employees will be trained on recognising common mental health issues, conversation skills and how to encourage someone to seek help.
Minister Tong concluded the dialogue session by emphasising that, even with all these initiatives and programmes in place, the goal of creating a more inclusive society with regards to mental health issues would not be achievable without change happening on the ground level.
He said: “To me, this has to be an effort by the whole of society because it is not possible for a person with mental well-being [issues] to actively and confidently seek treatment if they think people around will judge them. [They will] feel like they are suffering from prejudice… I think we must be bold enough to take the view that we must be able to tell a person that they are free to raise [their mental health issues] without adverse consequences.”
Acknowledging that there will be differing opinions on ways forward, Minister Tong reiterated the importance of dialogue and conversations such as Ong’s Burnout series.
He said: “It is easier to say it and discuss it than to do it… I think these kinds of sessions and these kinds of mindset shifts start with such conversations.”
Ong will be continuing dialogues about mental wellness with similar sessions engaging the issue with different guests on his Instagram page on Oct 21 and 22. The Burnout series will end off with a Zoom session on Oct 28 joined by experts to discuss the practical handles of mental illness.
Registration for the Zoom Webinar can be found here.
Learn to manage your emotions better during these unprecedented times by ‘Braving The New’.