Time to recharge together: NUS steps up mental health care with Well-Being Day
For students, adjusting to campus life in a top university and navigating the transition to adulthood can be stressful. For staff, heavy workloads and tight teaching schedules can be hard to cope with.
Add the COVID-19 pandemic into the mix and the pressure intensifies as boundaries between professional and personal lives are blurred with remote work or classes, online collaborations posing difficulty, a sense of isolation increases due to social gathering restrictions, and mounting fears of uncertainty.
Recognising the growing stress levels, NUS has been stepping up efforts to promote mental and emotional well-being in both its staff and students.
The upcoming initiative: NUS Well-Being Day.
On 5 Nov, NUS will shut down to recharge as a community. Held a day after the Deepavali public holiday, staff and students will get a long weekend to reconnect with family and enjoy time away from school and work.
“Amid the challenges brought on not least by COVID-19, I am proud to see the NUS community come together to make the best of our circumstances with grit and courage. We have done very well in the way we adapted to significant changes in the way we live, study, work and play, and I truly appreciate how each of you have stepped up to the plate in order to keep our campus safe and healthy,” said NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye.
#WELLNUS: Ensuring no one is overlooked
NUS Well-Being Day builds on the university’s slew of initiatives, including the Health and Wellbeing (HWB) Team that was set up last year.
Helmed by Dr Andrew Epaphroditus Tay, the team designs programmes that enhance resilience. It also consolidates the strengths of other NUS units supporting mental health, including the University Health Centre, University Counselling Services, Office of Student Affairs, and Office of Human Resources.
The goal, he shared, is to make a greater impact through collaboration while ensuring a coherent message.
But tackling mental health issues is complex as many are still afraid to seek help, and among those who do are a wide range of concerns that need to be addressed differently.
“The perennial challenge is how can we proactively identify students and staff who are struggling and who have clammed up,” said Dr Tay. This is particularly difficult due to the large NUS community comprising over 50,000 staff and students.
Hence, the team takes a structured approach, shared Ms Katherine Koh, Consultant (Organisational Psychologist) on the HWB team. The team developed an in-house #WellNUS framework that systematically identifies potential gaps in NUS’ well-being support services.
The framework aims to support staff and students every step of the way, as there are different stages of a person’s well-being journey.
Now, the team is in the midst of building and implementing a staff Peer Support System. “We hope to be better able to reach out to distressed individuals and reduce the barrier to help-seeking behaviours by creating a community of support,” said Ms Koh.
Campaigns such as #AreuOK have also been launched to destigmatise mental health issues, she added, noting that an initial survey found the campaign to be effective in driving awareness among staff and students, and increased their willingness to support people with these conditions.
#AreuOK: Providing help to those in distress
But even when people do seek help, getting them to overcome their struggles is not easy as their triggers and problems can be multifaceted. Being at a top university also adds to stress.
“NUS was recently ranked 11th in the world, and No.1 in Asia. Naturally, we attract the best, brightest and highly motivated staff and students to join our community, creating a vibrant, dynamic and move-fast culture,” shared Dr Tay.
“This also brings with it performance stress, which manifests differently in respective persons.”
Undergraduates have to deal with challenging curriculum, reduced or very different peer groups, as well as family separation for foreign students who are alone in Singapore and learning to assimilate into local culture. With COVID-19, they also had to quickly adapt from physical to online learning platforms.
Professors had to learn how to use new platforms to teach during the pandemic, and juggle domestic duties and professional responsibilities in light of default work from home and home-based-learning arrangements.
“In general, even without COVID-19, living, studying and working in a fast-paced, highly competitive university environment presents some perennial stressors,” explained Ms Agnes Koh, Head of University Counselling Services.
Some of the more common student problems she has encountered include personal growth issues such as emerging adult social identity, one’s existential purpose in life, and self-acceptance.
Together with her team, Ms Agnes Koh offers counselling to students while also taking preventative measures, such as through screenings and assessments. Student leaders are also trained to identify risk indicators and to make referrals to the University Counselling Services.
Among staff, the more common issues that cause mental distress are workloads and expectations, family relationships and tensions, as well as conflicts with colleagues.
To address these problems, the HWB team offers individual well-being check-ins. It is also developing and delivering workshops to train staff to identify and support colleagues who may be experiencing distress, said Dr Kinjal Doshi, Lead Psychologist & Senior Wellbeing Specialist Partner on the HWB team.
“These initiatives are a start towards maintaining and improving the mental health and well-being of staff. We recognise that by attending to the needs of staff, it will indirectly impact the mental health and well-being of students,” she said.
#RechargeTogether: A journey to emotional wellness
While ad-hoc programmes are beneficial, the impact are often temporary and unsustainable. To prolong the effects, NUS will continue to review and prioritise resources to channel towards achieving better mental health.
For instance, the HWB team is already preparing for the second run of the #AreuOK campaign, which will take place from January to June 2022.
“I’ve learned that campaigns cannot be done once off. Building awareness and having that translate to actual behaviour change takes time,” said Ms Katherine Koh.
She added that frequent and consistent messaging over the years is essential to facilitate culture change and reduce mental health stigma.
This will hopefully put to rest many myths about mental illness, including seeing it as personal weakness, fate, retribution, or a test of character.
For Dr Tay, ensuring emotional well-being is a long-running target for the university. “We are never done in our journey. Health and Well-being is a shared objective among NUS, Staff and Students bodies,” he said.
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Their personal stories on mental well-being
Hear from the HWB team on their personal struggles and on how we should cope with mental health issues.
“There were moments of panic attacks due to impending difficult conversation during the more formative part of my career and as junior doctor in the healthcare system. My sleep was badly affected with early awakening and panic awakening. Consequently, this contributed to poor temperament, for which my wife and children bore the brunt of my emotional outbursts at home while juggling domestic and professional duties. Without the help of my patient and understanding wife, and the kindness of my then-reporting manager, it would have been so much more challenging to overcome the difficult time.”
- Dr Andrew Epaphroditus Tay, Director of the Health and Wellbeing team, on his personal struggles during the early years of his career
“Imposter syndrome was something that I had to deal with a lot. This involves feelings of self-doubt about my abilities and past accomplishments. Being aware of this really has helped me to challenge and reframe unhealthy thought processes.”
- Ms Katherine Koh, Consultant (Organisational Psychologist), on the challenges she faces in her job
“I think that one of the most helpful things for people trying to cope on their own is to have some basic mental health literacy such as recognising common signs and symptoms, whether the issue should be acted on now or to adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach, and where to seek suitable and appropriate consultation (which is different from intervention).”
- Ms Agnes Koh, Head, University Counselling Services, on how people should cope on their own where mental health topic is still a taboo in some families
“This team reflects the importance an institution such as NUS is placing on the mental health and well-being of its community as a whole – staff and student alike. It facilitates the development and implementation of services promoting mental health and well-being in the NUS community. And it brings mental health conversation to the forefront and normalises this as part of our daily lives.”
- Dr Kinjal Doshi, Lead Psychologist & Senior Wellbeing Specialist Partner, on the significance of the Health and Wellbeing Team