In the bustling city-state of Singapore, where skyscrapers adorn the horizon and economic prosperity flourishes, there exists a haunting spectre that often remains hidden from public discourse: the state of mental health among its youth. Beneath the veneer of success and progress, a deep-rooted crisis looms, characterised by inequalities in accessibility, inadequacies of available avenues of aid, and an alarming severity of mental health issues. This commentary aims to shed light on these critical aspects, unravelling the complex tapestry of mental health challenges faced by Singaporean youths.
Behind the veneer of Singapore’s remarkable achievements, a distressing reality unfolds: the severity of mental health issues afflicting the nation’s youth. The relentless pursuit of excellence, the pressures of academic performance, and the weight of societal expectations take an immense toll on the emotional well-being of young Singaporeans. The prevalence of anxiety disorders, depression, and suicidal ideation among this vulnerable demographic is alarming. An NUS study found that 1 in 3 adolescents report depression and anxiety but only 10% of parents can spot mental health issues. Reports suggest that a significant number of Singaporean youths experience immense stress and burnout, further fueling the mental health crisis. Without urgent and targeted interventions, compounded with ignorance of parents, these struggles threaten to cast a long shadow over the future of Singaporean society.
Another reason that contributes to the youth mental health crisis is the high use of social media. While social media aims to facilitate global connections, cater to individual interests, and offer limitless entertainment, it also brings forth adverse outcomes due to constant scrolling. Studies indicate that young adults engaging in social media are at a threefold higher risk of experiencing depression, thereby exposing a significant portion of the population to potential thoughts and behaviors related to self-harm or suicide.
According to Holzbauer, a licensed clinical social worker at Huntsman Mental Health Institute, there is a tendency to act impulsively on social media, sharing thoughts or emotions that may not align with our true selves after a day or so. Consequently, once our rational mindset regains control, we often experience feelings of embarrassment, shame, or regret for hastily posting such content.
Additionally, it is widely recognized that before sharing, content can undergo filtering, editing, and manipulation, resulting in the dissemination of unattainable standards to a global audience. This accessibility prompts users to pursue instant gratification and, in some cases, measure their self-worth or image based on the images they encounter and the number of likes their posts receive. This creates even more pressure and self-deprecating thoughts.
The isolation oftentimes felt by the use of social media, compounded with the decreasing of parental involvement makes the issue much worse. A study by the American Psychological Association found that the lack of perceived parental involvement relates to more mental health difficulties and suicidal thoughts and behaviors among students. On the contrary, perceived parental involvement buffers the impact of traditional victimization on mental health difficulties and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. In general, decades of research overseas and locally have shown that the more parents are involved in their children’s education, the better their children perform in school. Children with more involved parents enjoy school more and have better school attendance. They are also more emotionally and socially well-adjusted and better able to handle stress. Meanwhile, about 1 in 5 households in Singapore have domestic help as both parents have to work full-time. This growing lack of parental involvement would thus negatively impact the mental well-being of youths.
The government recognises these concerning trends, and has been making an effort. Counsellors are typically available in every school all the way up to the tertiary levels. More topics surrounding mental wellness have also been incorporated in civics or CCE lessons at various levels, covering issues such as anxiety, depression and trauma. These lessons introduce basic coping mechanisms and present external avenues of aid available. However, to many students who are actively facing these issues, not much covered is new. The root issue lies with the existing inadequacies of the mental healthcare scene in Singapore.
As one searches for solutions, it becomes evident that mental health services in Singapore are far from accessible to all. Despite commendable efforts by the government to enhance mental health awareness, a stark disparity prevails in terms of access to these vital services. Financial constraints serve as a significant hurdle for many youths, hindering their ability to seek professional help or avail themselves of support programs. The costs of basic counselling will set one back $80 to $120 per hour. Such a price tag is significantly out of reach for most Singaporean students today. The cost of therapy sessions, medication, and hospitalisation often poses a substantial burden, rendering mental healthcare out of reach for those without financial means. The resulting consequence is an uneven playing field, perpetuating a cycle of inequality that exacerbates the suffering of those who need help the most.
Even for those who manage to overcome financial barriers, navigating the labyrinthine system of mental health support in Singapore can be an arduous and disheartening journey. The existing infrastructure, while commendable in some aspects, falls short of meeting the growing demand for mental health services. Public healthcare institutions are often overwhelmed, with long waiting times for appointments and limited resources allocated to mental health. The shortage of trained mental health professionals further compounds the problem, leading to insufficient care and compromised outcomes. Those that are admitted to the psychiatric ward at General Hospitals will often find themselves transferred to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH). Even at IMH, therapy sessions remain rudimentary, involving mostly Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which does not really work with youths who already actively intellectualise their emotions. Such approaches are mostly only useful for those who struggle completely to function day-to-day, such as having difficulty getting out of bed. CBT is more focused on scraping by with tangible goals, and is not as useful for illnesses such as High Functioning Anxiety, where those suffering from it are able to even thrive in their work, but are severely mentally taxed regardless. A more comprehensive and personalised approach to therapy is what’s required, which is often only found in the pricy private sector.
Moreover, the stigma surrounding mental health issues acts as an invisible barrier. The perception of IMH in the eyes of Singaporeans, especially the older generations, is still that of a nuthouse, discouraging many youths from seeking help and perpetuating a culture of silence and shame. As mentioned earlier, parents are still unable to identify signs of mental illness in their children, the researchers behind the same NUS survey said that the results suggest that there is room for parents to be “involved more deeply in identifying and supporting” their children’s mental health conditions. Parents need to educate themselves more about the common mental illnesses plaguing our society and our youths today. They have to learn that mental illnesses don’t just mean extreme behavioural issues, they can also manifest silently in the depths of our psyches as well, and are increasingly common and equally dangerous today. Many youths fear opening up to their parents about such issues due to the prevailing stigma. Parents may consciously or subconsciously invalidate or dismiss the mental health conditions that their children bring up or want to get a diagnosis for, creating another barrier for these youths to get the help they need.
For A Level GP Paper 1, students can evaluate the severity of mental health issues in Singapore. Though the government has beefed up the curriculum to be more accommodative of mental health issues, it is not very helpful in practice. Students may highlight the importance of intangible factors such as the social stigma around mental illnesses they have and will continue to prevail, especially given the conservative nature of our society. Even on the ground, students can also evaluate the comprehensiveness of care in available mental health facilities that are subsidised by the government. These factors will help paint a clearer picture of the progress made; in comparison to the growing statistics of mental health issues, not enough significant change is made.
The journey into the depths of mental health challenges faced by Singaporean youths reveals a troubling reality. The inequality of accessibility, general inadequacies of avenues of aid, and the severity of mental health issues paint a stark picture of a society grappling with an often-overlooked crisis. To break free from the chains of this crisis, concerted efforts are required from all stakeholders. Government bodies must commit to increasing funding for mental health services, expanding the reach of affordable care, and enhancing mental health literacy. Educational institutions and community organisations should prioritise mental health education, foster safe spaces for dialogue, and destigmatize seeking help. Collectively, by raising awareness, dismantling barriers, and providing comprehensive support, Singapore can pave the way towards a brighter future—one that embraces the mental well-being of its youths, ensuring they have the resources and resilience to navigate life’s challenges with hope and strength.
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