Our Student Dialogues: How can we as a society support those who suffer from mental health issues?

@Jade Ow Yanhui

Posted February 09, 2020
Last modified February 09, 2020

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As mental health becomes more recognised in Singapore, we look at how we can do even more for our students. Are current measures enough to help our youths suffering from mental health issues? What more can be done to provide a safe and welcoming environment? We answer those questions and more through an exclusive look into SGExams’ first ‘Our Student Dialogues’ session on the mental health of students.


For someone who has never experienced it before, the term mental health may appear peripheral at best. Indeed, for many years, mental health has been brushed away as something that is not real, merely a figment of the victim’s imagination. How many times have you heard someone tell a person suffering from depression to “just snap out of it”? Or worse still, have you seen a fellow schoolmate being bullied by others simply because they seem to act “abnormal”?


All of these may appear innocent enough. One might think that it is just people being insensitive. However, in reality, we must recognise that their attitudes towards people with mental health issues stem from stereotypes ingrained by society. As Singapore begins to recognise mental health as a real metric of our standard of living, one thing becomes clear: This is a conversation that must take place now.


On the 19th of January 2020, we held our first ‘Our Student Dialogues’ at the National Youth Council Headquarters (NYC HQ). Our team of panellists included Mr Cho Ming Xiu, Founder of Campus PSY; Mr Matt Oon, Founder of Acceset; Mr Muhammad Syazwan, the Senior Programme Executive of the Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH); as well as Mr Jack Sheng, Deputy Director of the Guidance Branch within the Ministry of Education (MOE). We also had 30 participants who joined us in the dialogue session.


“They didn’t seek help because of the stigma.” - Mr Cho Ming Xiu, Campus PSY


Why do youths choose to suffer alone? The answer, as one of our participant groups indicated, was that there was little recognition of the mental health landscape. Youths with mental health issues are unlikely to reach out for fear of getting ostracised by society. As a result, it is common for them to try to act normal even as they struggle in silence. As one of our participants mentioned, her friend’s cousin was lost to suicide despite appearing ‘high-flying and bubbly’ most of the time. “She used to write poetry. From something very positive, it became very dark. Her self-expression took a different tone but she didn’t want to open up about it.”


There are many who find themselves in similar dark places, for reasons they find difficult to express to the people around them. Some of them eventually develop mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When no support is provided over prolonged periods, the individual may then fall victim to unhealthy behaviours, self-harm and even suicide.


Fortunately, there have been progressively more measures to address mental health, as more non-profit organizations and activist groups campaign for better visibility for those among us who need help. 


“Everything they wouldn’t tell their parents, their friends… They would tell us.” - Mr Matt Oon, Acceset


Mr Oon founded Acceset after Health Promotion Board (HPB) shut down a portal which allowed people with mental health concerns to reach out anonymously. He now provides a platform for anyone to write in so that they can receive the necessary moral support without having to reveal their identity.


Meanwhile, Mr Syazwan conducts assembly sessions in schools to raise awareness about mental health. “The youths should feel empowered to reach out,” he says. However, he found that most students would choose not to approach SAMH booths even if they were set up right within the school compounds.


“Why do students avoid us like the plague even after being encouraged?” He laments.


Through the dialogue session with our student participants, we found that most people did not want to approach the SAMH booths in school due to the concern of getting judged by friends, relatives and even parents. Social stigma remains as one of the most prevalent factors which discourage young sufferers of mental health from getting the help they need.


MOE representative Mr Jack Sheng has similar sentiments as he speaks to the participants. “In my course of work I see many parents - there’s a large spectrum of parents. They really are in total denial, [thinking] that their son has no issues even though it can be seen quite clearly.”


“As a school, we cannot overstep the parent’s boundaries. Parents will have a final say, ultimately. What we can do, however, is to tug at the heartstrings and help parents recognise that their child has exhibited some of these things.” He refers to the symptoms that youths might exhibit when suffering from mental illnesses.


The school would bring in their counsellor to speak with the parents and work closely with REACH teams to provide support. Psychologists may also be called in to help the child.


However, Mr Sheng stressed that schools have limited power over such cases. “We can only nudge them towards seeking professional support.”


With this in mind, what could be the source of stress which leads to mental illnesses?


Our panellists unanimously agreed that one key source of stress are parents. Parents may place undue expectations on their children which can then lead to communication issues, or worse, abuse. However, they also conceded that this is a very touchy issue. While the focus is now on finding ways to address the root of the problem, the authorities and NGOs must employ measures which do not encroach on parental rights.


Another source of stress could also be the overpitching of exam papers. When a particular paper is not a benchmark but a means of instilling fear into students, you get demoralised youths, disappointed parents and tuition centres getting more money. “We are always telling the schools to pitch it properly so that we don’t instil fear amongst students – we talk a lot about the joy of learning,” assured our representative from MOE. However, such messages are often filtered down by schools who indirectly fuel the need to participate in the rat race. This leads to stress, which compounded with other elements of stress may eventually lead to a mental health problem.


Finding a solution for all of this is hardly easy. However, both panellists and participants agree that amidst all the red tape, privacy and relatability are key in getting those suffering from mental health problems to open up. Fortunately, we are headed in that general direction as we continue to push for a more inclusive society - one that does not discriminate against those with mental illnesses.

Author @Jade Ow Yanhui

A free spirit at heart with a passion for anything creative, Jade enjoys all forms of writing. She often dreams of escaping the ordinary and planning her life once she gets out of the education system. While the 'A' Level Examinations eat up much of her time, you can occasionally find her daydreaming by the Bishan river, under some trees, or just daydreaming in general. She runs a blog at tinygreenstone.com.

Editor @Jade Ow Yanhui

A free spirit at heart with a passion for anything creative, Jade enjoys all forms of writing. She often dreams of escaping the ordinary and planning her life once she gets out of the education system. While the 'A' Level Examinations eat up much of her time, you can occasionally find her daydreaming by the Bishan river, under some trees, or just daydreaming in general. She runs a blog at tinygreenstone.com.