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Commentary: Time to shift focus from raising awareness to effecting change in support of those with mental health issues — here's how

Every year, on the 10th of October, the global mental health and health community observes World Mental Health Day by promoting mental health education, awareness and advocacy against social stigma.

If we are to move forward together, we need to create a society where differences do not just exist but are encouraged and celebrated, says the author.

If we are to move forward together, we need to create a society where differences do not just exist but are encouraged and celebrated, says the author.

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Every year, on the 10th of October, the global mental health and health community observes World Mental Health Day by promoting mental health education, awareness and advocacy against social stigma.

A silver lining of the Covid-19 pandemic is that mental health issues have rapidly become a common conversation topic among more Singaporeans.

But it is important to note that awareness and conversations about mental health conditions are merely the first steps to behavioural and attitude changes.

Long-term and sustainable societal level changes will take time to develop as every person is different, and so will their readiness to embrace these differences.

Nevertheless, we have made incredible progress in these past two years, and I believe we are now in a position to shift focus away from awareness to encouraging change.

So how can we move forward while also recognising and acknowledging the diversity of personalities, opinions, and beliefs that exist? Here is how I believe we can do so.

CREATING SPACES FOR POSITIVE ENGAGEMENT

The challenge with changing attitudes towards mental health issues and the reality of the situation is that not everyone will experience severe mental ill-health.

As such, it can be challenging for people to fully understand and empathise with people who have such conditions.

This could also explain why psychoeducational interventions have a limited impact on shifting negative attitudes to positive ones. This is entirely understandable and should be expected.

Furthermore, coupled with a highly outcome-driven and problem-solving-oriented society, the time and patience necessary to engage people in deep, meaningful, and reflective conversations about mental health issues may be lacking.

Hence, we cannot afford to rush these changes but should find ways to allow for more positive interactions to occur between individuals with and without mental health challenges.

Doing so would enable more people to see that these individuals experiencing various mental health challenges are fundamentally no different from them.

For example, encouraging people to volunteer at various mental health organisations that frequently host events for their clients could be an excellent way to meet more people with mental health experiences.

For instance, without my personal experiences volunteering at the Institute of Mental Health, I would have never been able to appreciate the beauty of the people experiencing mental health challenges and learning how to look past the condition to see the person beneath, when I began my journey in this area. 

Eventually, the hope is that enough people have sufficient positive experiences with mental health issues or people experiencing them to create new norms.

RECOGNISING INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES AND BEING PATIENT

Every individual is unique and will have their own life experiences, perspectives, and beliefs.

Due to these differences, integrating new knowledge into our existing worldviews can often be difficult, especially when they are not aligned with what we are used to and comfortable with.

Hence, when trying to help people learn more about mental health issues, it is crucial we recognise the importance of meeting people where they are and work from there.

Doing so requires patience and understanding as the process of change can be long, and at times, be not fruitful at all.

However, it is when we are able to find a commonly accepted language and shared beliefs that we will be able to truly move forward towards inclusivity.

The challenge here is to find a compromise which works for and can be embraced by everyone.

Far too often, advocacy efforts that preach inclusivity, while fully well-intentioned, end up creating more division and defensiveness, instead of bringing people together in collaboration.

These unintended consequences could be due to an inability to recognise and appreciate differences in opinions.

As a researcher, I’m trained to view an issue from all angles and this really helps me appreciate all opinions and beliefs, even if they differ from mine.

Learning to do so truly has helped me develop into a more well-rounded and accepting individual.

If we are to move forward together, we need to create a society where differences do not just exist but are encouraged and celebrated.

UNDERSTANDING THE HELP-SEEKING PROCESS

As societal changes will take time, we can also take actionable steps to understand better the various avenues people can turn to for help in Singapore. Unlike physical illnesses, the paths to care are often not as familiar for most people.

Additionally, seeking help for mental health conditions could involve trial and error before a suitable service provider match is found.

This added challenge is due to the nature of professional interpersonal relationships in mental health support, which is an entirely normal part of the process.

Taking time to find a professional suitable for your needs is essential to long-term treatment success.

For adults, the public health care system such as polyclinics, hospitals, and social service organisations serve as a good entry point, with most of them offering some form of mental health triaging and support services.

This is especially helpful if the Institute of Mental Health is viewed as a daunting choice for first-time help seekers.

Services are also often subsidised. Private sector organisations could also be an option if financial resources are not an issue but do ensure that your service providers are registered with their respective professional bodies such as the Singapore Medical Council (for psychiatrists), Singapore Psychological Society (for psychologists), and the Singapore Association for Counselling (for counsellors).

For younger individuals below the legal age, turning to trusted adults such as mentors, relatives, or parents could be the first step you take to discuss your concerns and how you are feeling.

Alternatively, teachers and school counsellors could be possible options if you feel comfortable with them.

Furthermore, if you wish to seek help from sources outside the school system on your own, places such as the Community Health Assessment Team or Tinkle Friend for primary school students can be avenues to explore as well.

The earlier help is sought, the better the outcomes often are, so consider reaching out when you need it.

I do not give this advice lightly or in a dismissive manner as well.

Having journeyed with many people experiencing mental health conditions, I fully recognise the difficulties of seeking help because of various circumstantial challenges.

There is often no easy fix for it, but one should still try receiving help before discounting its potential.  

A BRIGHTER FUTURE LIES BEFORE US

Despite the many challenges we face regarding mental health issues in Singapore, we have definitely come a long way. But our work is not done until these conditions become a regular part of our social fabric.

It will take time, effort from everyone, and many tough conversations, debates, and at times, even arguments and reconciliation before we reach such a stage.

Even countries decades ahead of us in terms of tackling these issues are still grappling and trying to move forward.

So take heart and keep the hopes that mental health issues will one day be part and parcel of everyday life in Singapore.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jonathan Kuek is a doctoral candidate and mental health researcher at the University of Sydney, specialising in recovery approaches to the management and understanding of mental health conditions. He is also the co-founder of The Total Wellness Initiative Singapore, which seeks to encourage people to be more proactive with their well-being.

Related topics

mental health Covid-19 World Mental Health Day

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