A deeper look at mental health

More than one in ten people in Singapore have suffered from a mental disease at least once in their lifetime, and mental disorders contribute to seven per cent of Disability Adjusted Life Years — a measure of healthy life years lost. These statistics set the impetus for the NUS Students' Political Association’s Social Policies Forum 2017 on 21 February themed "Mental Health: What does it mean to me?", aimed to kick-start a much-needed conversation on mental health in Singapore.

Graced by Guest-of-Honour Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Health, and attended by NUS staff and students, the forum featured three speakers — Dr Khor; Assistant Professor Mythily Subramaniam, Director, Research Division of Institute of Mental Health and Adjunct Professor at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health; and Dr Joel Yang, a clinical psychologist with his own practice, and Psychologist at Yale-NUS.

The government believes in upstream prevention and early intervention, shared Dr Khor in her speech. Policies run the gamut from prevention and early detection to ensuring a supportive community. However, Dr Khor emphasised that as individuals we all have a personal responsibility to learn about good mental health and to build up mental resilience, in order to seek help early if necessary.

“Within our communities and social circles, we can do our part to pick up signs of stress and render emotional support to our family, friends and colleagues, who may be facing emotional challenges,” she added.

Asst Prof Subramaniam shared that depression is one of the most prevalent and recognised disorders in Singapore. But research has shown that despite the prevalence and awareness, there is a treatment gap, with 60 per cent of people who have suffered a depressive episode never seeking professional help. She pointed to stigma as a possible cause of this.

“People do tend to see people with depression as weak and not sick,” she said, adding that this could result in a lower likelihood of being advised to seek professional help.

Drawing upon anecdotes of people he has seen during his practice, Dr Yang spoke about the fears many people have in declaring their mental illness, whether for insurance, university or job applications, and questioned the stark difference between people’s openness about talking about physical illnesses as opposed to mental ones. The stigma is something the society needs to address, he declared, as it perpetuates the treatment gap, and can even perpetuate or exacerbate the illness itself.

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Dr Khor (3rd from right), Asst Prof Subramaniam (2nd from right) and Dr Yang (2nd from left) with Prof Ling (3rd from left) and students during the forum

The forum was followed by a lively dialogue session where participants had the chance to seek the panellists’ views on various issues including the difficulties of mental health diagnosis for seniors, the ramifications of Budget 2017 on mental health volunteer welfare organisations, evaluations on the efficiency of mental health programmes, and support systems that exist for mental health sufferers in the workplace.

During the forum, Professor Florence Ling, Associate Provost (Student Life), who was also in attendance, took the chance to share with the participants about the support available at NUS for mental health and wellness. These include counselling and psychological services, a student support manager and Vice-Dean of student life in every school, resident fellows who have been trained in mental health in every Hall, as well as the Roots and Wings course for building personal resilience.