By Zi Qi
Despite having one of the best healthcare systems in the world, a study conducted by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) has shown that 1 in 7 Singaporeans have experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime, with youths between 18 to 34 years being presented as the most vulnerable group.
Even with the slow but growing awareness of mental health among the general public, there is still a gaping lack of proper mental health education in Singapore.
When was the last time students had a school lesson dedicated towards mental health awareness or education? Most students would remember having career guidance programs to educate them about the types of career paths, but the talk of mental health in Singapore appears to be a topic that is absent from our education system.
According to the IMH, the most common mental illnesses in Singapore are:
- Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and Bipolar Disorder
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
- Alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence
However, despite the small steps being taken to raise mental health awareness in Singapore, many individuals with mental health disorders are afraid of seeking help, and a significant treatment gap remains.
The Stigma Against Mental Illness
Addressing the elephant in the room, there is a strong social stigma against mental illnesses, and it often affects the lives of individuals diagnosed with a mental illness in a number of ways.
Many of those dealing with mental health issues face discrimination from others. According to the Singapore Mental Health Study (SMHS), Singaporeans with a mental illness were observed to have a 16% lower quality of life score than those without one as they often have the stereotype of being ‘abnormal’ or ‘crazy’ stamped on their foreheads.
There’s also the fear of workplace discrimination, stemming from the notion that employers may not view individuals with past or current mental health issues the same as their ‘normal’ peers. For the sake of certain opportunities and career choices, many choose to keep their mental health status a secret, or ignore it entirely.
Researchers from the IMH also conducted a study to understand more on the reasons behind this stigma against mental illnesses. Some of the main causes they identified include the Chinese culture of ‘Saving face’ (or to keep one’s dignity), and also the general view of mental illness as a sign of weakness or instability. Other causes identified include Asia’s extremely conservative values and the Singaporean elitist mindset.
To make matters worse, there is also a negative portrayal of mental illnesses in the media. It is a common depiction that all people with depression resort to self-harm and are suicidal. Mental illness is also portrayed as being untreatable, when in reality that’s far from the truth.
The Troubles in Getting Help
There have been numerous times where the issue of a lack of proper mental health education has been brought up to increase awareness amongst the general public. So why are we not tackling this issue head on?
Singapore has a fairly comprehensive prevention and treatment program. The Ministry of Health drafted the National Mental Health Blueprint (NMHBP) back in 2006 to not only reduce the impact of mental illness across all ages, but to also promote education about mental health. In addition to that, there is an extension of mental health services to the community to enhance links with family physicians in hopes of recognizing and providing care for not only the mentally ill, but also the general public.
Despite these frameworks in place, according to IMH, 78.4% of Singaporeans who experienced mental illness in the past year of the survey did not seek treatment. Moreover, there is also a notable lack of medical insurance coverage for patients seeking mental health treatment. Individuals would have to pay a hefty price ranging from S$5,000 to S$25,000 for treatment.
On top of the steep price, when mental illnesses are regarded as trivial or shameful, these individuals would rather suffer than seek treatment.
What Has Been Done?
Not all seems bleak, though. Over the years, there have been numerous peer support groups surfacing online, be it in the form of self-help groups on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Telegram.
These groups assist in creating a safe space for people who feel as though the world is against them. They act as a listening ear and have the common goal to encourage people to come out of their shells and forge new friendships.
Over the Rainbow is an organisation founded by 2 parents that is supported by a group of volunteers to provide an environment to promote holistic self care. The organization has a dynamic online community and hosts classes that help people of all ages express themselves and forge new friendships.
Campus PSY (Peer Support for Youths), is a non profit organization that, much like Over the Rainbow, aims to promote mental health awareness and create a peer support group amongst young adults in schools and in the workforce.
However, even with these small steps towards increasing mental health awareness, there is still much more work to be done.
What is the Government’s Response?
Although there have been some actions taken by the government to envision a holistic approach to mental health, the response to the mental health scene in Singapore still remains inadequate. According to data shared by the Health Minister in Parliament in 2019, Singapore’s expenditure on mental health makes up for only 3 percent of total expenditure.
At the beginning of the Circuit Breaker, allied health services such as private counselling and social work were deemed as “Non-essential” and thus were not allowed to operate. It took a total of three full weeks before they were declared as essential services, which further demonstrated the lack of support for the mental health care system.
Though a little backtracked, there is no doubt that the government has begun to recognize the impact of mental health on Singaporeans. Within just two weeks of the launch of the National Care Hotline on April 10th 2020, the helpline had received more than 6,600 calls from distressed Singaporeans.
What Can Be Done?
There are a variety of ways to contribute to improving the mental health scene in Singapore.
Firstly, help service lines should also cater to people who speak different languages and dialects. A large majority of mental health providers cater only to those who speak English, leaving non-English speakers with little to no options when trying to seek help.
There should also be an increase in public awareness of mental health. Many of Singapore’s youths perceive individuals suffering from mental illness as unstable, and these negative associations only worsen as they get older. Increasing public awareness can come in different forms, such as holding talks in schools to educate students more about the mental health scene in Singapore, or by deploying campaigns to hopefully erase the stereotypes of what a person with mental illness behaves like.
Creating a society that is more understanding of mental health and those who suffer from mental illnesses is what we should strive towards.
What Should We Do?
It all boils down to the simplest actions that can make individuals feel like they matter.
Being present when someone confides in you and listening attentively when they are speaking can make them feel validated. It’s no easy feat for individuals suffering from mental illness to open up about their problems. Don’t be dismissive, and instead encourage them by offering your care and support.
We all have a part to play to take that first step towards a more altruistic future for Singapore by creating an empathetic society for everyone.