Mental health should be prioritised and not stigmatised, says NMP Anthea Ong

She said that a strong and united Singapore needed a mentally resilient society across all ages

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Singapore – Amidst the numerous challenges the country is facing such as ageing, inequality, social mobility, economic transformation, and climate change, there is an issue that has not been discussed throughout the Budget 2019 debate – mental health and well-being. Nominated MP Anthea Ong took this path for her maiden Budget speech on February 27, Wednesday.

The social entrepreneur started her speech by referring to the Minister of Finance Heng Swee Keat’s Budget Statement that revolved around “building a strong, united Singapore.”

Ms. Ong went on to give a few personal observations concerning mental health. She shared her experiences, from her nephew who was diagnosed with depression to a conversation she had with a taxi driver who told her about his grandfather committing suicide by jumping from the flower pot rack along his HDB corridor while he was having breakfast.

Her own “close shave” with depression happened over 12 years ago, amidst professional and economic success.

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The numbers and statistics

To add depth and clarity to her statements, Ms. Ong gave the recent findings on mental health and how it affects people of all ages.

– The Institute of Mental Health (IMH) recently reported that the number of young Singaporeans between the age of 16 and 30 who sought help from their Community Health Assessment Team has jumped by an alarming 190% over the last three years.

– Children age five to nine calling the SOS hotline increased by more than 500% in less than three years.

– Suicide is the leading cause of death for those age 10 to 29.

She said  according to the Singapore Mental Health Study released in December 2018, “As the young progress to adulthood, they continue to be most at risk of suffering from mental disorders.”

– The Health Promotion Board released findings which state that the mental well-being of working adults in Singapore is 13% lower than the general population

– Workplace stress makes up 90% of the psychological conditions experienced by working Singaporean adults

– An overwhelming 86.5% of those employed do not seek help for their mental health difficulties

– One in five Singaporeans aged 75 and above show signs of depression

– Since the start of suicide tracking in 1991, 2017 held the highest number of Singaporeans aged 60 and above who committed suicide

She mentioned the vulnerable and underserved communities, such as migrant workers, caregivers, and households with single parents, who are exposed to a host of adverse conditions that affect health and mental health including poverty and access to support infrastructure

– one in five elderly caregivers in Singapore suffer from depression

– six in ten migrant workers with an injury or salary claim are likely to suffer from a serious mental illness

– single-person headed households struggle to seek state support

The challenge of mental health is far-reaching.

One in seven persons in Singapore experiences a mental health condition in their lifetime which increased from one in eight just eight years ago.

In a global setting, the rate is at one in four. She pointed out that while the government is focusing on the war against diabetes with one in nine Singaporeans being prone to diabetes, mental health statistics are not lagging.

Stigma, discrimination, and neglect

The question nonetheless stands, “How does 10 out of 1,000 students receiving counselling for stress and anxiety (statistic released by the Ministry of Education), become one in seven adults experiencing a mental health condition in their lifetime? What have we missed in our policies? What more must we do?”

Ms. Ong proceeded to offer some suggestions by saying:

“There is no health without mental health. We must normalise mental health and bring it out to the open. The government and the community have to learn to value mental health as basic health and to then reduce stigma and improve help-seeking and recovery.”

Mental health should not be the responsibility of the Ministry of Health and the social sector alone.

Ms. Ong firmly believes that all ministries should recognise their role in protecting Singapore’s mental health and should be considered in all key government decisions such as interventions in the education system, reforms in employment practices, and community initiatives.

“Mandating mental health education in our schools and institutes of higher learning is the surest signal to normalise mental health,” she noted.

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

“No other health condition in humankind has been neglected as much as mental health has,” said Ms. Ong who quoted the Lancet report.

Change in perspective and approach needed

With the escalating prevalence of mental health conditions, changes in perspectives and approach must be made.

“The way we look at mental health reminds me of climate change, Mr. Speaker. 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 this challenge,” said Ms. Ong.

Her suggestion would be to establish a national coordinating body focused on the improvement of the country’s mental well-being.

She closed her speech by saying:

“It’s time for the government to recognise, acknowledge and understand the complexity of mental health and to create opportunities and solutions to improve the lives of our people, especially our children and youth.

It’s time to redefine our values as a nation and to cherish every individual’s subjective well-being, dreams, and aspirations beyond just their material and economic achievements. It can be done, it must be done because mental health is what makes us human.

And this surely is what a strong, united Singapore must first-and-foremost always be.”

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