Public Health Challenge 2020: Let’s talk about mental health

The challenge's top prize went to Spectrum, whose website features lectures, group activities, and mental health content

With friends often confiding in him, final-year NUS Psychology student Sean Toh realised that many students face mental health challenges but do not seek help.

So he formed a team called Spectrum with three friends and took part in the NUS Public Health Challenge (PHC) 2020.

Organised by the NUS Public Health Interest Group (PHIG), the annual competition challenges students across various faculties to improve the health of the NUS community through ground-up solutions. This year, the spotlight is on mental well-being.

“It’s painful (to hear about these struggles) because there’s so much we can do,” said Spectrum team member Karen Lee, a final-year NUS Psychology student. “Our goal is to empower NUS students to build a resilient community.”

Studies have shown the high level of stress faced by students. Further, many students do not seek help due to stigmatisation.

So Spectrum – which also includes Coco Yau and Wellace Leong – developed a credit-based module that strives to reduce mental health stigma and boost help-seeking and help-giving behaviours for on-campus students.

Students are encouraged to enrol with friends. This creates “resilience groups”, a safe space for everyone to speak openly in order to normalise conversations on mental health.

The project clinched the top prize of $1,800 in cash at the PHC, which ran from Aug 8 to 22. MindfulNUS, which proposed an interactive app, and Brave Connect, whose project aims to educate the student population about depression, came in second and third respectively.

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Spectrum's team members (from top left, clockwise): Coco, Wellace, Karen and Sean

“PHC 2020 could not have come at a more important time as we grapple with COVID-19,” said Professor John Wong, Senior Vice President (Health Innovation & Translation) at NUS, who was one of five judges. “The pandemic has impacted mental and physical health, and we need both to be well to achieve our full potential.”

Safe spaces for sensitive sharing

Spectrum’s module, which is complemented by a website, comprises a series of interactive lectures and group activities; its content is vetted by professors with relevant expertise. These sessions will then be conducted by trained student facilitators. The discussions will include sharing sessions with those who have experienced mental illness.

“We want to ensure that students know that mental health is important and conversations about it should be normalised,” said Coco, a third-year NUS Psychology student.

The student-led group activities adopt the principles behind the psychology model, Awareness, Courage and Love (ACL). An ongoing study by the University of Washington found that the model improved the mental health and social connectedness of 1,500 Americans during the COVID-19 lockdown. Students will learn to observe their own feelings as well as those of people around them, and gain courage to share their own struggles. Eventually, they will be able to respond to these sensitive self-disclosures with empathy.

“Such a component is apt during this time,” said Sean. “With ACL, we want students to reach out to other students who are suffering.”

But first, the team will conduct a rigorous pilot test over two semesters using needs assessment, which includes focus groups and seminars. This allows them to identify the needs and level of interest before proceeding with a trial and, subsequently, the official launch. The data is aggregated on a dashboard that incorporates current and follow-up data to tailor the module according to students’ needs.

The team’s main data analyst, Wellace, a final-year NUS Statistics and Applied Probability student, said, “This is to allow further adaptation of our module for subsequent batches, and this in turn promotes sustainability.”

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Participants and judges at the PHC 2020's final round of judging, which was held on Zoom on 22 Aug

Monitoring your mood with an app

MindfulNUS’ Jonathan Leo, Natalie Yam and Nicholas Ho were awarded $1,000 for their app, which promotes self-reflection, improves access to information and matches NUS-based resources to students.

“We decided an app was the best way because people may find it troublesome to physically visit a counsellor or are self-conscious due to the stigma,” said Natalie, a first-year NUS Medicine student.

MindfulNUS hopes to first promote a culture of mental well-being where lecturers and student leaders conduct short mindfulness exercises before lessons or co-curricular activities. These involve simple steps such as closing the eyes and taking deep breaths. The app, which would take eight months to develop, will then be promoted to students during these pre-class activities.

“People can be coping well or feeling bad – in both situations, constantly checking in on mental health is important,” said Jonathan, a final-year Life Sciences and Psychology student. The app will assess students’ mental state and offer them customised resources. It will also attempt to address misconceptions or offer avenues for help on campus, while recommending interest groups or clubs and societies to encourage students to maintain a healthy varsity life.

Nicholas, a first-year NUS Biomedical Engineering PhD student, said, “With more conversations and awareness, we can make (mental health discussions) a way of life.”


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