A topic that was once not really discussed, but was pushed to the forefront after the country went into lockdown at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of the pandemic and lockdown on the mental well-being of people is real.
Throughout the circuit breaker, mental health practitioners reported that there was a marked increase in the number of people across all demographics seeking help for a wide array of mental health-related conditions – anxiety and depression being the most common conditions. SOS, the nation’s care helpline, received between 3,800 to 4,200 calls per month from March to May, a 30 to 35 per cent increase from the numbers in 2019.
The problem doesn’t simply go away after lockdown measures were loosened. Experts have also predicted that the nation’s mental health will be a pervasive issue in the long run, as people find themselves with increased stress and anxiety levels as a result of job losses, family conflicts, and other major life changes as a result of COVID-19.
Underreporting of mental health issues
In an interview with The Straits Times, Dr Goh Kah Hong, senior consultant of psychological medicine at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital explained that the increased number of calls could also be attributed to the “usual underreporting of mental health issues”.
“People are seeking help now because what they would have usually put up with has become too overwhelming to just bottle up,” he said.
Dr Goh’s explanation definitely makes sense. But the real question is, why do we have to wait until things become unbearable (or for a pandemic to happen) before we seek help?
Fear not, there is help available
Are there really no avenues for us to seek help when we find ourselves struggling with overwhelming thoughts and emotions that we can’t control? There actually are. For starters, there is a list of helplines that one can turn to, if we simply need someone to talk to:
- National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868
- Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
- Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
- Institute of Mental Health’s Mobile Crisis Service: 6389-2222
- Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800
- Silver Ribbon: 6386-1928
- Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788
For those who may be a bit apprehensive about talking to a stranger (they are trained volunteers), Samaritans of Singapore has recently launched a Care Text service, where users will be able to text volunteers via Facebook Messenger, thereby removing the need for a phone call.
Treatment for mental health conditions have also become more accessible, as local hospitals and polyclinics now have psychologists and psychiatric services available for those who may need therapy and treatment.
Most recently, the government has also launched an inter-agency task force to provide a coordinated national response to mental health needs of Singaporeans. The task force will be reviewing the psycho-social impact of the pandemic on the population, and then work to address the gaps in the current ecosystem to better meet the needs of those who need mental health assistance.
President Halimah Yacob has also endorsed the notion of improving mental health literacy amongst youth in Singapore, by announcing that mental health education will be included in a revised school curriculum that will progressively be implemented from 2021. Schools will also establish peer support structures by 2022 to strengthen current efforts.
People are talking about it, too
Beyond official channels, there are also a plethora of social media accounts that advocate for mental health wellness. These accounts help mass audiences understand mental illnesses through the use of easy-to-understand infographics on Instagram, and also provide tips on how to help and care for a loved one who may be suffering from a mental condition.
Licensed therapists have also been going on TikTok to educate the younger generation about mental health, and to encourage those who may be struggling with such symptoms.
Within the confines of our shores, mental health advocacy is nothing new as well. Launched in 2018, Beyond The Label is Singapore’s first campaign to remove the stigmas associated with mental illness, by the National Council of Social Services (NCSS).
This year, responding to the increased need to provide information about mental illnesses as Singaporeans were recovering from the effects of lockdown, Beyond The Label organised a virtual mental health festival, where participants had the opportunity to learn more about mental health issues through panel discussions, as well as be entertained by a wide array of activities aimed at boosting mental wellness.
Apart from the virtual concert, another highlight of the festival was a dialogue hosted by Youth Alliance, featuring Sylvia Lim, Co-Founder of Night Owl Cinematics, as well as representatives from Campus PSY Limited, Health Promotion Board and the Community Health Assessment Team (CHAT) as panelists.
Providing some words of advice and encouragement to those suffering from mental health issues, Sylvia Lim urged them to not berate themselves and look down on themselves for their condition, as that is usually the biggest roadblock to getting help.
“At the end of the day, we’re all trying to anti-stigmatise mental health disorders. You can say that there is a lot of stigma, in society and in the workplace, but what we don’t talk about is the self-stigma that we put on ourselves, and that is something that is the biggest roadblock of all; because if you’re stigmatising yourself…that mentality will stop you from seeking help.”
Mental health may no longer be taboo in 2020, but we can definitely do more in 2021
As someone that is diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and currently undergoing mental health treatment, it is encouraging to see more and more people help push these issues into the public sphere, and it helps with normalising it. But we’re still far from developing a safe space where we can freely discuss these things without judgement.
Unfortunately, there are still occasions I still find myself trying to explain my situation to someone who isn’t as informed, and I have had to deal with comments like, “Just get better”, or “You shouldn’t be sad”.
But the important point here is that these important conversations are held, even though they were triggered by a pandemic. Plus, taking the time to explain it also contributes to increasing awareness.
Going back to Sylvia’s words, here’s something to think about: maybe the self-stigmatisation (which I am sometimes guilty of) and societal stigmatisation is a vicious cycle that we all need to get out of.
While society becomes more receptive to discussing our mental health problems opening, maybe those of us suffering with these conditions could be more upfront about it as well, and work on treating ourselves with more kindness (at least I know it’s definitely something I need to do for myself).
Since we’ve already made some progress in 2020, let’s try to make 2021 an even better year for mental health conversations.