Forum: Telling people to 'be resilient' isn't enough when it comes to mental health

It is concerning to read about counsellors facing burnout as more people seek therapy, because it suggests that the mental health support system is unable to cope - akin to hospitals running out of beds (Counsellors face burnout as more seek therapy amid pandemic, Sept 20).

There have been warning signs. For instance, international surveys label us one of the most fatigued or overworked countries in the world.

In a nationwide survey, teachers said their mental health has been affected by their work amid the pandemic (Over 80% of teachers say pandemic has hurt their mental health, Sept 23).

Anecdotes of other public servants being overworked are not uncommon (Are public servants overworked due to pandemic?, April 9).

Unfortunately, the usual response is to simply expect individuals to "be resilient". The bulk of the responsibility is often placed on individuals to exercise "self-care".

For instance, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said that "social emotional skills and resilience building" are the foundation of the Ministry of Education's mental health efforts.

It is assumed that students can become more resilient by teaching them to recognise mental illness and seek help where appropriate.

There is also talk about appointing teachers as "wellness ambassadors".

But all of this is moot if teachers and even counsellors are overworked and unable to care for their own mental health.

The broader issue is that a workforce already stretched to the limit (and often unwilling to admit it because of stigma) simply cannot cope when unexpected situations arise.

It is one thing to value "hard work", and another to valorise self-destructive behaviour.

What then? Perhaps it is time to think about more ways to build redundancies into our social systems. An established idea in fields like engineering, redundancy is the extra capacity built into systems to cope with unexpected adversity.

At a recent dialogue, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam highlighted the importance of building redundancy into supply chains, especially as we expect more societal "shocks" like Covid-19 to occur in future.

It is admittedly not straightforward to translate the concept of redundancy into social systems, but one way to start is by reducing class sizes in schools.

Doing so will accord teachers more bandwidth to engage and support individual students' needs, especially since students prefer approaching their teachers over their school counsellors (Students prefer to talk to teachers rather than counsellors about issues, Aug 1).

Importantly, it can also give teachers more time to support each other and their own families.

Shannon Ang (Dr)

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