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Why some take anxiety pills before exams: Students hope for better mental health support in schools

SINGAPORE — Alarm clocks, stuffed toys, medicine — the teacher was rattling off the list of “strange” things that students leave behind in the exam hall.

Why some take anxiety pills before exams: Students hope for better mental health support in schools

Mr Ow Gan Pin, 45, who is Dunearn Secondary School’s head of department for Character and Citizenship Education (CCE), is seen teaching students the purpose of peer support during a training session with a group of peer support leaders.

SINGAPORE — Alarm clocks, stuffed toys, medicine — the teacher was rattling off the list of “strange” things that students leave behind in the exam hall.

“She said: ‘What medicine, Xanax?’” recalled Faye, “and I was sitting there thinking, ‘yes, people genuinely rely on these things to get by’.”

As someone who was diagnosed with anxiety disorder in primary school, Faye, who declined to give her real name, found it distressing that a teacher deemed it incredulous for students to need anxiety medication during exams.

On another occasion, the same teacher appeared to joke about a student she thought might jump out the window in the middle of an exam.

“She even made a pun about not wanting to ‘jump to conclusions’,” Faye said.

The 19-year-old may have left junior college four months ago, but she is still affected by the insensitive comments that her teacher had made about students with mental health struggles.

She is not alone; other students whom TODAY spoke to recounted the ways in which their mental health challenges have been misunderstood or dismissed by their peers and teachers. 

Having to battle with the stigma and not knowing where to look for help, many of them shared that they struggled to get help from within the school system.

Recognising the need for greater mental health support for students, the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced last week that it would include mental health education in the refreshed Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum.

The ministry hopes that this will help students understand common mental health problems and their symptoms, know when and how to seek support, and develop empathy towards people with mental illness.

Students whom TODAY interviewed welcomed the initiative, but are wondering what the content of the lessons would be, how they would be taught and whether the teachers would have sufficient training and sensitivity to handle complex issues.

PROBLEMS STUDENTS FACE

Some of these students have themselves received insensitive comments from their peers.

Caryn Low, 13, said some of her schoolmates would make jokes about mental health.

“They would say things like ‘I’m depressed’. Some of the girls would tell them that it’s not funny, but I don’t think they took it seriously,” said Caryn, who lost her 11-year-old brother to suicide in 2017.

Her mother, retiree Doreen Kho, 46, is concerned that teaching a child about mental health symptoms without following it up with the necessary intervention would make it worse for someone who is having problems.

Students TODAY spoke to also hope that the curriculum would detail the spectrum of mental health issues. 

Some said they had dismissed their problems as not being “severe” enough to warrant help initially. 

One student who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that although she sought help from several counsellors throughout her years in school, she found that they were not able to help her cope with her problems.

“It just felt like I was talking to a friendly adult… I would feel better for a day but go back to feeling the same after a while,” said the 19-year-old who just left junior college.

TEACHING STUDENTS MENTAL HEALTH A ‘BALANCING ACT’

Teachers, counsellors and parents interviewed by TODAY supported the move to introduce mental health into the CCE curriculum.

Mr Ow Gan Pin, 45, who is the head of Dunearn Secondary School’s CCE department, said: “With the enhancements to the CCE curriculum, we hope to destigmatise mental health issues, help our students develop empathy, equip them with the skills to know when and how to seek help as well as how they can support others.”

One secondary school teacher said extra care must be taken when educating students on common mental health conditions and their respective symptoms.

This is because from her experience, students who tend to overthink may end up misunderstanding the lessons and coming to the wrong conclusions.

“It’s really tricky. On the one hand it’s good if their issues are discovered earlier, but on the other hand some students may box themselves into a label even if they are not clinically depressed, for example,” said the 50-year-old who declined to be named as she is not authorised to speak to the media. 

That being said, parents like Mdm Chan Yen Ling, 52, said because young people are already searching for this information on the internet, she would prefer for her kids to get guidance from the school.

PEER SUPPORT WELCOMED BUT STUDENT LEADERS NEED SUPPORT, TOO

By 2022, all schools will also have an established “peer support” structure where, among other things, student leaders will be elected to help promote mental well-being and advocate for a more supportive school environment.

But there is a need to make sure that the student leaders themselves are supported as it is not always easy to be the shoulder for others to lean on, said teachers and counsellors.

Ms Jennifer Chan, 53, who is a counsellor at Mind What Matters clinic, said: “How will the (peer support leaders) be trained and who is going to take care of them? You need a good foundation before you can extend help to another person.”

Some students might not have the maturity to discern when is the appropriate time to flag serious issues, said a teacher who declined to be named.

They might also hesitate to raise serious issues, especially when the sufferer had asked to keep their problems a secret.

“They will not want to be labelled a snitch,” the teacher said.

 

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, we reported that the “peer support” initiative introduced by MOE will be established by 2020. This is incorrect. The initiative will be established by 2022. We are sorry for the error.

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mental health students teacher school anxiety

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