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How to make mental health a national priority

In the past week, I have spoken out three times in Parliament on why Singapore must make mental health a national priority and the importance of erasing the stigma surrounding it. So how do we get there?

In the past week, I have spoken out three times in Parliament on why Singapore must make mental health a national priority and the importance of erasing the stigma surrounding it.

My 17 year-old nephew who is out of the school system because of depression, the young man who works with me at A Good Space with his suicidal attempt a few years back at 19 and my own close shave with depression 12 years ago make this issue near and dear to me.  

“Building a Strong, United Singapore” – the title of Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat’s Budget statement - can only be possible with a people that is mentally resilient across all ages and segments of our society. Resilience and confidence can only come from a mentally healthy society.

So how do we get there?

First, we have to recognise that our quality of life is defined not only by markers of economic growth and our material wellbeing but also our subjective well-being.

We must constantly question if our national policies and spending empower, beyond just enabling, our people to be ready for challenges ahead and confident of our future.

Given that, we should ask why mental health is not one of the long-term domestic priority alongside those highlighted in the Budget Speech, namely ageing, social mobility, inequality, economic transformation, and climate change?

There is after all no health without mental health. We must normalise mental health and bring it out to the open.

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To be sure, Singapore has made much progress moving from a predominantly medical approach of the past to one that is more holistic.

The Government launched the five-year Community Health Action master plan in 2017 to enhance community care for mental health.

Primary care providers like polyclinics and General Practitioners are being trained to support mental health services in non-stigmatising environments.

In 2018, the National Council of Social Service launched a national campaign “Beyond the Label” to break the stigma surrounding mental health. This year, the President’s Challenge is focusing on mental health. I’m greatly inspired by these efforts.

Yet mental health is not and must not be the responsibility of Ministry of Health and social sector alone. All ministries should recognise their role in protecting Singapore’s mental health.

The impact on the mental health of any group of stakeholders, whether it be citizen, service user, staff or other, should be considered consistently and robustly in all key government decisions.

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Cross-ministerial policy making will be required to address the burden of mental health in our society — from interventions in education, reforms in employment practices and community initiatives.

To this end, a national coordinating body can be set up to work with all stakeholders (government, employers, communities, schools etc).

These are some of the issues related to mental health it can look into:

Mental Health Education: Despite the escalating prevalence of mental health issues amongst our children and youth, mental health education programmes such as the Holistic Health Framework by the Health Promotion Board are still optional placing the onus on schools to adopt and implement them.

Peer support programmes in schools and tertiary institutions are also optional.

Health education must be reframed to include mental health so that students are taught from young that both their physical and mental wellbeing are equally important.

Mandating mental health education in our schools and Institutes of Higher Learning is the surest signal to normalise mental health, together with providing support structures for parents and families to be equipped with emotional management skills, coping mechanisms, and problem solving skills to help our children and youth better navigate stress.

Inclusive Employment Practices: Studies by the Institute of Mental Health have clearly demonstrated that mental disorders have significant consequences on the workforce in terms of lost work productivity in Singapore.

72 per cent of employers in Singapore say that their companies have been affected by mental health issues of employees, yet only half have psychosocial support programmes in place.

We must update our employment policies to recognise and promote employee well-being by enacting clear and deliberate provisions that are upstream and preventive in nature.

Our employment laws, including the Workplace Health & Safety Act, must also explicitly include and provide for psychosocial health and safety, beyond physical health & safety. Programmes such as Special Employment Credit and the Open Door Programmes must include persons-in-recovery from mental health conditions.

Prioritising Mental Health in Social Policy: Our social policies must place mental health as a priority for the underserved and vulnerable communities alongside basic needs.

The Quality of Life Standards by the National Council of Social Service is a great start yet we can and must do more in partnering these communities to design solutions that take into account their mental well-being and dignity, beyond merely fixing problems or providing services for them.

Community Efforts: The community must come in too.

I applaud the many ground efforts in mental health and support services including voluntary welfare organisations, informal groups and social enterprises. A group of 25 C-suite leaders and I came together to form the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup last year as a national ground-up effort to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices for workplace well-being.

The first ever mental health insurance product was also launched early this year by one commercial insurer which augurs well for the surging de-stigmatisation efforts and providing much needed support for those with mental health conditions.

Mental health disorders are on the rise in every country in the world and could cost the global economy up to US$16 trillion between 2010 and 2030, according to the Lancet Commission Report in 2018.

We are not sure how much Singapore shares in this because no study has been done by the Government to-date.

We could however surmise, with the wide ranging impact mental health disorders have on innovation, productivity, economy and social cohesion, it might not be too far from the estimate of S$2.5 billion diabetes is expected to cost Singapore by 2050.

Afterall, one in seven Singaporean is found to experience a mental health condition in his lifetime versus one in nine who will suffer from diabetes.

No other health condition in humankind has been neglected as much as mental health has.” said the same Lancet Report.

The way we look at mental health reminds me of climate change. It’s invisible, and so it gets parked mindlessly and incorrectly in the “important but not urgent” quadrant of our awareness. Yet like climate change, it’s our future - our young ones - that we are jeopardising most if we continue with a transactional approach in addressing the challenge.

We must make mental health a national and whole-of-government priority.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament, social entrepreneur and author of 50 Shades of Love.  

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