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Commentary: Fixing ‘broken’ youth not enough to tackle mental health issues — nurture them to flourish in life too

Framing the current youth mental health crisis correctly will determine how we address the issue as a society.

The fact is that mental health is much more than just the absence of mental illness; it is also about the presence of positive qualities that promote overall well-being and flourishing, says the author.
The fact is that mental health is much more than just the absence of mental illness; it is also about the presence of positive qualities that promote overall well-being and flourishing, says the author.
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The Institute of Mental Health recently launched Singapore’s first nationwide study on youth mental health to better understand the prevalence of clinical conditions such as depression and anxiety, as well as related behaviours such as smartphone addiction and self-harm.

These are pertinent.

But much of the conversation on youth mental health appears to be centred on the prevalence of and propensity for mental illness, with the growing spotlight on young people’s heightened mental health vulnerabilities and suicidal tendencies.

The fact is that mental health is much more than just the absence of mental illness; it is also about the presence of positive qualities that promote overall well-being and flourishing.

We need a dual strategy.

First, we ought to understand that the struggle for mental health is real.

Here, treatment seeks to bring patients from an emotionally deficient state to a neutral baseline, or as pioneering psychologist Martin Seligman once said in an interview with Time magazine, “from a minus five to a zero”.

Second, framing the issue around fixing what is broken can reinforce the perception that youth are deficient in some way, which can discourage them from reaching out as help-seeking would be seen as further proof of their weakness.

This can aggravate youth mental health struggles. It would be fruitful to focus energies on recognising and nurturing the various strengths embodied by our youth.

Such is the perspective of ideas drawn from positive psychology, which is concerned with measuring positive traits such as life satisfaction and subjective well-being to find out what makes people feel fulfilled and engaged.

The idea here is that individuals have the capacity to excel, thrive and flourish, and that this capacity can help serve as a buffer against poor mental health and adversity.

For Seligman and his contemporaries, the question then is this: “What are the enabling conditions that make human beings flourish? How do we get from zero to plus five?”


Based on the findings of Youth Steps, a six-year longitudinal study by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Social Lab and the National Youth Council (NYC) on youth transitions and pathways, the pandemic has indeed taken a toll on youth mental well-being, with levels of anxiety significantly increasing between 2019 and 2021.

For instance, the proportion of youth who indicated that they were not able to stop or control worrying increased from 22 per cent in 2019 to 27 per cent in 2020 and 29 per cent in 2021.

Despite the elevated anxieties, life satisfaction has seen an uptick during the second year of the pandemic. More youth (64 per cent) indicated feeling satisfied with their lives in 2021 than in 2020 (60 per cent).

These findings may seem counter-intuitive: why would life satisfaction increase in the presence of greater mental stress?

A closer look at the Youth Steps data found that the youth are acutely aware of the uncertainties that are looming over them such as employment and the ability to achieve other life milestones, and this is manifested in their elevated state of anxiety.

However, they have also learnt to adjust their expectations according to the ups and downs of the pandemic and found new meaning and fulfilment in their adjusted life goals from the time they had to reflect, and this is manifested in the increase in life satisfaction.

The silver lining in the external shock that is Covid-19 appears to be a grittier generation of youth who have taken the uncertainties in their stride and acquired a better appreciation of what it means to flourish in their lives.

Further, while Covid-19 has worn down personal resources such as mental health and resilience among youth, the study has also found that having a stock of bridging and bonding social capital can buffer this depletion and in fact enhance one’s sense of resilience.

In other words, being embedded in networks of social support can make individuals more resilient overall. Thus, mental resilience is circumstantial and not merely an innate trait exclusive to a remarkable few individuals.

The key then for policymakers is to ensure that all youth have sufficient access to supportive social networks so as to strengthen resilience, which would in turn support youth to lead more fulfilling lives.


In highlighting the conditions needed for stronger resilience among our youth and for them to thrive, we are by no means advocating that overall mental well-being should take precedence over the treatment of clinical mental disorders.

The Interagency Taskforce on Mental Health and Well-being chaired by Senior Minister of State for Health Janil Puthucheary is already working on expanding Singapore’s clinical capacity for mental health issues.

We are pointing out that addressing the mental health disorders and reducing the stigma of talking about mental health issues will only take us “from a minus five to a zero”.

Moving from a zero to a plus five as a community would see more youth being locally engaged in the causes that they are passionate about, such as environmental stewardship and helping disadvantaged groups.

More initiatives that provide youth with a testbed to discover and refine solutions to meet community needs, such as the NYC Young ChangeMakers (YCM) grant and the YCM Open Mic platform, can be offered to encourage greater advocacy and volunteerism within this demographic.

After all, being embedded in communities that youth have a stake in building also means there will be additional support structures to cushion the onslaught of external shocks such as the ongoing global uncertainties.

Tackling mental health in Singapore is not about fixing our “broken” youth alone, but about how the country can create the conditions for future generations to flourish and thrive.



Isabelle Tan is Research Assistant at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), National University of Singapore (NUS). Chew Han Ei is Senior Research Fellow at IPS and Vincent Chua is Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at NUS.

Related topics

mental health Youth support

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