PARLIAMENT: Budget 2019 debate

Parliament: Make mental health a 'national priority', like diabetes

If Singapore can declare war on diabetes, which affects one in nine people, what more can be done to combat mental health conditions, which afflict one in seven?

Nominated MP Anthea Ong posed this question yesterday when she made a plea to the Government to make mental health a national priority.

She warned of the "clear and present danger the invisible yet mounting challenge of mental health" could pose if more people suffer from it.

Beyond looking out for material well-being, the Government and society must learn to value mental health as a basic need, she said.

Some headway has been made, she added, noting that primary care providers like polyclinics are being trained to support mental health services in non-stigmatising environments.

But she urged that an inter-ministerial agency be established to develop a culture of improving citizens' subjective well-being.

It could, among other things, look at implementing compulsory mental health education in schools, and employment laws to provide for psycho-social health and safety.

The community must do its part too, she said, noting that a commercial insurer launched the first mental health insurance product this year. "The way we look at mental health reminds me of climate change. It's invisible, and so it gets parked... in the 'important but not urgent' quadrant of our awareness."

She added: "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 the challenge. Poor mental health will cost Singapore our future when our children cannot reach their full potential, especially when their lives end prematurely."

Ms Ong, who said she had a "close shave with depression over 12 years ago", was among three MPs who spoke about mental health.

Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) suggested giving incentives to employers who hire those with mental health conditions and special needs.

Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC) singled out the mental health of the elderly as a concern. Among other things, she wants the Government to assign a voluntary welfare organisation to actively keep an eye out for seniors who may have mental health conditions and help them get help, if needed.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2019, with the headline Make mental health a 'national priority', like diabetes. Subscribe