By Tan Su-Lynn
Two days ago, I read an article about mental health in schools, and how the school system was falling short of providing mental health support to students. The article began with an anecdote which illustrated how even teachers, who are charged with spreading good values sometimes behave in ways which hinders progressive movements like the destigmatisation of mental health issues in society. Not only did this teacher discount the legitimate need for psychiatric medication that some people have, he also made off-colour remarks about suicide. Given the increased scrutiny the Singaporean education system has come under, and the fact that it has been an exacerbating factor in the suicides of some children and adolescents, his remarks were remarkably insensitive at best.
Mental health should never be trivialised, and is most definitely not something that is to be joked about. Behaving like that teacher flies in the face of efforts to bring to light the importance of mental health to the functioning of a healthy society, not to mention the lives of people who do have mental health issues. Last year, nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong addressed Parliament¹, musing about how Government had called for greater efforts to combat diabetes, when in fact more people were afflicted with a mental disorder than diabetes. The costs that mental health issues impose on our healthcare system is no laughing matter, and the attitude held by that teacher was indeed regrettable.
Talking about mental health in such flippant and cavalier ways detracts from the ability to talk openly about it. There’s no denying that there is still a stigma around mental health. We, as a society, can help to overcome these barriers by speaking out about the importance of mental health, and by leading by example – we should all strive to speak in an open-minded and accepting fashion about it. It is this very stigma that often prevents people from seeking treatment, or worse yet, even recognising that they are suffering from a mental health condition. We don’t see it happening, because we are often unable to live the lives of others, but the stigma often drives people further into isolation, which has harmful effects on their condition.
In the first place, people who struggle with mental health problems often find it hard to open up about their conditions, or talk about it in ways that other people can understand. It’s with great difficulty that they finally get around to reaching out and asking for help, and unfortunately, even these efforts can be rebuffed if people don’t know how to respond. While it’s true that the onus is on people who have mental health conditions to reach out for help, their personal responsibility should be matched by the wider, shared responsibility we have to each other – to look out for one another, and to pay attention to the signs that someone we know may be suffering from a condition. We need to nurture safe spaces, where the topic of mental health is neither trivialised nor discounted. These safe spaces are essential for sharing, listening, and often are indispensable places for people to offer care in a supportive environment.
Apart from families being the ‘caring nucleus’ of a child’s life, the school environment is an invaluable place from which children derive a solid sense of security that produces strong values. The close ties that children forge with their school teachers and peers help to serve as preventive measures against the seeking out of destructive or maladaptive alternatives. Children are made to feel safe, when they can develop the anchors of strong, meaningful connections to groups as they explore and discover the wider world. It’s in these supportive environments that children learn how to trust others, and learn that seeking help from others isn’t a risky proposition. This is exactly why we need to educate people about the dangers of trivialising mental health, which is especially corrosive when school teachers perpetrate such backward attitudes.
Yet other barriers exist. Sometimes, even if the peers of school children with mental health issues are fully supportive, there simply isn’t enough information on how to get their friend the help that they need. This information vacuum detracts from well-meaning efforts, breeding fear and uncertainty about how to offer support.
It’s my belief that the move by the inclusion of mental health to the refreshed Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum is a highly commendable one. Teaching about empathy and helping skills is a grassroots move that promises to have far-reaching effects in building a resilient and caring society. Inculcating these positive values in impressionable young minds is definitely a step in the right direction, especially when these soft skills form the bedrock of a more inclusive society in which mental health is less stigmatising. On top of these efforts, in 2022 the Ministry of Education wants to bake this movement of inclusivity into the curriculum – creating a structured “peer support” environment where elected student leaders promote mental well-being is a great platform from which we can springboard discussion about thornier mental health issues.
Parents have also pointed out that that access to the internet does raise legitimate concerns about having children ‘misdiagnosing’ or ‘labelling’ themselves inaccurately – the torrent of information that the internet opens children up to also unfortunately raises the potential of false or misleading information. With this in mind, it becomes imperative for the Singapore education system to create structured guidance for students to learn how to identify and recognise the needs of themselves and others.
Even as a parent yourself, the complexity and range of severity of social-emotional/behavioural needs can be bewildering at times. It’s always okay to reach out for comfort and advice if you feel overwhelmed!