Circuit breaker anniversary: It's okay not to be okay

Symptoms could include feelings of fear or uncertainty.
Symptoms could include feelings of fear or uncertainty.PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

SINGAPORE - The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the importance of good mental health to the forefront.

A slew of nationwide initiatives focusing on mental well-being have been rolled out since last year. Prominent public figures like DBS Group chief executive Piyush Gupta have also spoken openly about their mental health struggles in socially conservative Singapore, reducing the stigma surrounding the topic.

The National Care Hotline, which was set up in April last year to provide psychological first aid and emotional support during Covid-19, was one example of the historic scale of these efforts, says mental health professional Andrea Chan.

"For so long in the history of Singapore, we never had this. It was as if the nation came together to say, 'We embrace mental health', and that came about as a result of Covid-19," adds the assistant director of Touch Mental Wellness, a division of Touch Community Services, which provides mental health services and education.

She says: "There has been a normalisation of mental health struggles. In the past, people with such challenges may have been viewed as weak, but with Covid-19, everyone experienced vulnerability to stress and disruption to some degree."

Such symptoms could include feelings of fear or uncertainty, or a sense of being overwhelmed by Covid-19 restrictions, such as when the entire family was working and learning from home.

Ms Chan adds that there seems to be greater acceptance towards seeking help and talking about mental health, especially in mass media.

The National Care Hotline has managed more than 40,000 calls since it started operations a year ago, the latest figures provided by the Ministry of Social and Family Development showed.

Other initiatives include the Covid-19 Mental Wellness Taskforce, which was announced in October last year. The inter-agency task force was convened by the Government to provide a coordinated national response to the mental health needs of Singaporeans arising from the pandemic.

In November, Economic Development Board managing director Chng Kai Fong opened up about his mental and emotional state, a rare occurrence among Singapore's top public servants.

He spoke about the "signs of depressive bouts" he experienced during the pandemic, when facing crises like the death of his brother-in-law. One day, he did not even want to get out of bed, he said.

Shortly after, Mr Gupta shared how he went through a period of "acute anxiety" when his start-up failed in 2000.

"I also learnt that people are often wary of talking about this because of a presumed stigma. However, the more open you are, the easier it becomes to deal with the issue," the top banker said.

Last year, the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) received about 10,000 outpatient referrals, a 3 per cent increase over the year before, according to figures it provided.

Dr Jared Ng, senior consultant in IMH's emergency services, says there is now a greater hunger on the part of the public and employers to learn more about mental health, through avenues like webinars.

Observers say mental health awareness had already been growing in recent years, but the pandemic made it difficult to ignore symptoms that were previously swept under the carpet.

In 2018, the National Council of Social Service launched the Beyond The Label movement to encourage the public to look beyond a mental health diagnosis and accept people with mental health conditions for who they are.

Mr Jonathan Siew, principal counsellor at Care Corner Counselling Centre, saw marital conflicts spike in the enforced proximity of the stay-home period.

The stress and social isolation of Covid-19 also placed a mental burden across almost all demographics, including teens, parents and seniors.

The silver lining has been the unexpected success of online counselling, he says.

Mr Siew adds: "The idea of doing online counselling was not possible before, as it was felt that counselling had to be in person.

"When push came to shove, however, we found that online counselling was efficient and opened us up to new groups of clients."

Telecounselling via Zoom helped him support some young adults working from home. They were experiencing tensions with family members, whom they used to spend long hours away from while at work.

Mr Siew is also looking into how Zoom therapy can benefit people with depression, who may not want to venture out or travel for a counselling session.

Some mental health service providers have already charted new plans for a post-Covid-19 future.

In January, Touch Mental Wellness launched an intervention service that helps primary school pupils build resilience.

Ms Chan says: "Even if there's no longer Covid-19, the children will have the resources to deal with stressors in a very uncertain world."

Helplines

• National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868

• Institute of Mental Health's Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222

• Touchline: 1800-377-2252

• Care Corner Counselling Centre: 6353-1180