Calls to mental health hotline surge by 70%

Helpline originally for patients discharged from IMH and their caregivers open to public since October last year

Counsellor Dezmund Soh, a former civil servant who has been manning the helpline for the past five years, says people can call the Mental Health Helpline for advice when they notice that a friend or colleague is feeling down or acting out of sorts. IMH opened the helpline to the public in October last year, in the hope that the community can flag potential cases. PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Calls to the Mental Health Helpline have surged after the hotline was opened to the public last year.

The number of calls jumped by 70 per cent to 16,500 last year, compared with 9,800 in 2013 and 9,000 the year before.

It used to be a crisis line to help patients who have been discharged from the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) and their caregivers. But IMH opened the helpline to all in October last year, in the hope that the community can flag potential cases.

"The fact that calls increased by quite a bit shows that there is a need for such a service and that people now not only know where to call, but they are also more willing and concerned about the mental health of those around them," said helpline counsellor Dezmund Soh, 35.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said last year that a whole-of-community approach is required to manage mental illness. "Family, friends and neighbours are the closest to those who have early signs of mental illness... they are in the best position to pick up signs and promote early treatment," he said.

IMH associate consultant Kelvin Ng said that this is especially important as a significant proportion of those who suffer from mental illness do not seek help.

The 10 trained counsellors who man the 24-hour hotline provide the public tips on what to do if they suspect mental illness in a person. If the person needs immediate help, an appointment will be arranged or the mental health team will make a home visit. The counsellors also advise callers on how to defuse crises and link them up with appropriate social services.

While counsellors used to deal mainly with clinical issues such as preventing relapse and ensuring medication compliance, they now deal with more social issues such as cases of hoarding behaviour, which are referred to the town councils.

Two in three calls last year were from IMH patients and their caregivers while the rest were from family members, neighbours, friends and community agencies. Most callers needed only quick advice but a third of the cases needed follow-up treatment or other intervention.

For instance, Mr Soh received a call from a resident who suspected his neighbour, a woman in her 50s, of having mental problems. He said she accused his family of making noise and plotting against her.

Mr Soh advised him to seek community mediation with the help of the police and grassroots staff.

Due to client confidentiality clauses, Mr Soh could not tell him whether she was an IMH patient. However, Mr Soh found out that she was an IMH patient from the home address and descriptions given.

"We noticed that she has not been coming for her check-ups and contacted her family members to bring her in for a review," he said.

Community agencies have also found the helpline useful. One agency alerted it to a resident who had paranoia and was damaging his neighbours' properties. He was taken in for psychiatric treatment and no longer disturbs his neighbours.

The IMH's Mental Health Helpline does not diagnose or counsel, but the Singapore Association of Mental Health runs a counselling helpline.

Said Mr Soh, a former civil servant who has been manning the helpline for the past five years: "What keeps me motivated is knowing that there is an outlet for them to talk, and that is very comforting to them because mental health issues can be taboo elsewhere.

"So if you notice that a friend or colleague is feeling 'low' or acting out of the norm, do not be afraid to call and we will help you along."

• The Mental Health Helpline is 6389-2222.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2015, with the headline Calls to mental health hotline surge by 70%. Subscribe