The recent alleged murder of a 13-year-old student at River Valley High School had shaken the nation by its core. Singaporeans all across the country have extended their deepest condolences to those afflicted by the tragedy, be it through online posts of solidarity, text messages, or comments. Some have even left bouquets and heartfelt notes at the front of the school.
Of course, one can only imagine the pain of losing a loved one, especially in such a macabre way.
As the nation collectively grieves this loss, much of the spotlight has been shone on the students of River Valley High- and more particularly, on their mental health.
According to TodayOnline, Experts have advised parents and staff members to pay special attention to the mental health of students as the experience is potentially highly traumatic to the students enrolled (TodayOnline, Gan).
The Singapore community is sympathetic to how the ordeal has now affected the students’ everyday lives. No one, especially not people as young as those students, deserved to go through what they did.
As we recognise the need for professional support for these students’ mental well-being, Singaporeans should also note that Mental Health issues have persisted in a large portion of the student population, and for a variety of reasons outside of traumatic experiences. Statistics show that about 1 in 7 Singaporeans have experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime, with half of all mental health problems established by 14 years old.
Hopefully, conversations like these may help to normalise and destigmatize the topic of Mental Health and seeking help (i.e. therapy, counselling). As President Halimah Yacob noted in the Straits Times, “It takes a tragedy like this to start us thinking deeply about the mental health of our young.”
Mental Illnesses can be influenced or triggered by a variety of reasons like genetics, environment and experiences (like the aforementioned incident). While the genetic factor of it all may be something unavoidable for people, we may assess contributing factors that seem to be the key cause for mental illness amongst Singaporean students.
Only when we acknowledge the influencing factors unique to Singapore, can we really move forward to solving the mental health pandemic amongst our youths.
Mental Health Amongst Students in Singapore
Stress in a hyper competitive education system
Teenagers in Singapore have long had to cope with the stress of a hyper competitive education system.
From ages as young as primary school, the pressure to do well academically starts with the introduction of major exams like PSLE right when they are merely 12 years old. Students are taught early in their childhood that their identity hinges on the scores they produce. While the government has pushed for reforms in the system to promote more holistic learning and less competition, the contest to be the academic best remains. This is most clearly evident in the strong tuition culture we have here in Singapore, with tuition being used as a tool to get ahead of the curve and stay competitive with students’ peers.
At such tender ages, students begin to tie their self-worth to tangible things like grades and accolades, and their confidence is seriously undercut should they fail to meet sometimes impossible academic expectations.
In most cases, students also have to juggle their studies with extra co-curricular activities and maintaining good relationships with friends and family. With so much on their plate, it is no wonder that anxiety levels amongst students in Singapore were reportedly significantly higher than other countries. (66% of students across all OECD countries said they were worried about poor grades at school. Among Singaporeans, it was 86%.)
This pressure, stress, and anxiety often goes on to take a toll on Singaporean teenagers’ mental well-being, resulting in mental illnesses like depression and anxiety disorders.
Add the global pandemic of COVID 19 into the mix, resulting in extended periods of isolation and a lack of face-to-face interactions, and Singapore might just have amongst the most mentally and emotionally jaded students in the world.
The lack of a proper support system
Singapore’s asian culture typically promotes ideas of emotional resilience and stoicism, and that makes talking about mental health struggles a particular taboo.
According to a research paper on BMC Psychiatry called “Mental illness stigma’s reasons and determinants (MISReaD) among Singapore’s lay public – a qualitative inquiry”, there are certain cultural values that contribute to the stigma surrounding mental health. In Singapore, we note how there is the cultural construct of “face”, a concept that is deeply intertwined with one’s social standing. Having mental illness is therefore perceived as bringing ‘shame’ or ‘embarrassment’ to the family’s and individual’s reputation, invariably making not just the individual ‘lose face’, but their family as well.
Not to mention, asian conservatism also contributes to the harsher stigma towards mental illnesses in Singapore whereby discussing emotions and internal struggles may not be the norm amongst families, authority figures, or sometimes even friends.
The stigma therefore manifests as a denial or refusal to acknowledge the mental illness by both youths and their families, all for the sake of salvaging their reputation. Sweeping these issues under the rug, however, often leads to the worsening of these conditions as they are unable to properly heal and manage their emotions and issues. What emotional damage could have been easily prevented through the right channels of help, is left to fester amongst the youth.
Age-old Teenage problems
One’s teen years are often filled with a plethora of fresh experiences: First loves, friendships, bullies, and etc. It can be all quite overwhelming, regardless if your experiences are good and bad.
Along with having to deal with the demands of being a good student, teenagers also have to deal with these aforementioned social problems as they grow up.
Nonetheless, the emotions that teenagers feel from these experiences are fully valid and may fully affect their mental states. Bullies and falling out with friends may lead to social isolation, heartbreaks may lead to losses of energy and falling grades- these are all still real issues for youths. And these problems may affect their emotional states even more, considering how.
Heartbreaks, friendship problems, bullying and other school dramas are inescapable parts of school life, and in the wider scheme of life these teenage problems do indeed seem quite trivial to older people. Nonetheless, asian culture often makes parents and authority figures dismiss the feelings of teenagers rather than comfort them and listen to them. To a teenager themself, the feelings they get from these problems are far too real and shouldn’t be ignored.
Considering how teenagers are also going through many hormonal changes that strongly influence their emotions and behaviours, they might be even more mentally affected by the problems they face in school and with friends. Add the coldness and sometimes anger of their parents and authority figures? You’ll get deeply emotionally stunted and depressed youths.
So, how might we solve or mitigate these factors? Well, the issues surfaced above often seem out of the hands of our impressionable youth. The Mental Health pandemic in Singapore may be a wider issue, and we may better find solutions in improving mental health through looking at the different stakeholders, and what they can do to help.
What parents can do
Parents and family are one of the most important stakeholders when it comes to teens’ mental health. These are, afterall, the people you have lived, slept, and grown with throughout your life. Outside of school, home is probably where teenagers spend the most time in, and it should feel like a place of comfort and respite.
When teenagers are suffering with mental health issues, they may respond unfavourably. Some symptoms of depression (to name one) include:
Lesser attention to personal hygiene.
Tiredness and loss of energy
Use of alcohol or drugs
Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list. These symptoms may lead to a drop in academic performance, skipping classes, or any other delinquent behaviours. Singaporean parents tend to perceive these behavioural changes as their children being ‘lazy’ or willfully acting out, and often deem that ‘tough love’ (i.e. punishments, scoldings) will get them out of their slump. They also might believe that this behaviour is simply ‘phase’ that they will learn to grow out of, and therefore ignore these blaring signs.
However, they are completely unaware of the internal struggles their child may be facing, and playing the blame-game might worsen the trust in the parent-child relationship. This may make it even hard for the teen to seek the right help, should they need it.
It is therefore salient for parents to stay vigilant for particular changes in behaviours, and to practice empathy towards their children. The Asian culture in Singapore seems to leave little room for emotional empathy since expressing emotion isn’t exactly the norm within families, but that is exactly what a vulnerable teenager struggling with their mental health needs.
Understandably, mental health is a relatively newer concept for the older generations to grasp. However, there are plenty of online resources that cater specifically to the Singaporean demographic. Organisations like Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH), National Council of Social Service (NCSS), and Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) are some great resources parents can learn from.
What the Government and society can do
The issue of mental health needs to be tackled on a school-level and a societal-level, meaning that there are some reforms to be taken up by the government in order to destigmatize mental illnesses and encourage students to seek help.
On the school level, we note that all schools have designated counselors and teachers that claim to care for the welfare of students, they may not be well-trained on dealing with mental health issues. Considering the sensitive nature of the illnesses, the wrong advice or a poorly-worded statement may just lead to even worse consequences.
Therefore, there is a need for the provision of more resources and professional support in order to truly help students with mental health issues.
Through the support of its citizenry, the relevant ministries could introduce more on-ground mental health training and courses for the staff of the schools. Further training of our educators on the sensitivities and misconceptions of mental illness will eventually help to destigmatize mental illness amongst these few people. As more people learn and talk about it, it could create a ripple effect in society where we eventually begin to accept the seriousness of mental health and take the necessary steps to help our youth properly deal with it.
Another way to better support students would be promoting partnerships with the various social services agencies that deal with mental wellness (i.e. SAMH, NCSS, SOS). Getting these organisations to work directly with schools will allow students to have much easier access to such support.
Aside from this, we might need to consider the overly competitive culture that breeds the very stress that afflicts students’ mental health. President Halimah Yacob, in the aforementioned Straits Times article, had recently shared that “society imposes high expectations on the young” and that we expect students to perform “like some well-oiled machinery”. There needs to be reforms at a higher level in order to address how the education system impacts our youth.
This could explain the recent changes to the school system such as the cutting of either mid-year or end-of-year school for Primary 1 to 2, Primary 3 and 5, and Secondary 1 and 3 in order to shift the focus away from grades. Changes have also recently been made to the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), with a new scoring system that is much less differentiated than the previous one. The new system hopes to reduce the exam’s competitiveness by recognising students’ academic achievement regardless of their peers.
However, the rat-race will continue to persist should standardized testings like PSLE, O Levels and A Levels exist. This, however, is not a scathing criticism of the systems of education Singapore has implemented- the standard of education in Singapore is lauded as one of the best in the world, and for good reason too.
We do have to re-evaluate what we as a society are placing extreme emphasis and value on. By shifting the emphasis to holistic development and celebrating other talents and skills, maybe we can shift the narrow focus away from grades.
As opposed to its early, vulnerable stages of growth, Singapore’s development has reached a point where its people’s careers are not narrowly limited to seemingly ‘elite’ careers that promote such competition. Singapore has come a long way today. Contrary to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s words, “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford”, the different disciplines and non-conventional industries of the arts, sports or etc. are luxuries we can no longer afford to miss. Giving the youth a free and open chance to pursue their dreams and ambitions may improve their overall quality of life.
What the individual can do
To the students struggling with their mental health: You are not alone. If you’re feeling low, depressed or just need someone to talk you through your problems, here are some of my personal recommendations for professional help and support at more affordable rates for students:
This organisation has a team of Clinical Psychologists and professional Counsellors who are trained in an eclectic range of therapeutic approaches in order to assess your needs and provide professional counselling services. They specialise in handling a range of mental health issues like Anxiety Disorders, Depressive Disorders, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders, and Traumatic Disorders. They may also provide subsidised counselling rates for students.
Polyclinics and General Practitioners
It is possible to get referrals for psychiatric evaluation from GPs in polyclinics. A referral may allow you to get subsidised treatment or counselling at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).You may refer to their site (https://www.imh.com.sg/clinical/page.aspx?id=244) for their pricings.
With a mission to combat mental health stigma, encourage early help, and facilitate integration of people with mental illness within the society, this organisation provides complimentary counselling sessions based on appointment.
One of Singapore’s long standing providers of mental health support, SAMH provides helpline and face-to-face counselling sessions in order to help people with psychiatric, psychological or emotional issues. Their service fees are donations-based.
For more immediate help, SOS is there as a 24-hour suicide prevention helpline manned by well-trained volunteers. They provide round-the-clock emotional support to those who are facing crises, contemplating suicide, or affected by suicide.