Befrienders-on-wheels service rolls out in new mental wellness initiative in Queenstown

Mr Chu Tiong Yong from social service agency Lions Befrienders talking to a youth in a Safe Pod van on Oct 10, 2021. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - A safe space and a listening ear will soon be pulling up in a van at neighbourhoods in Queenstown.

With a counsellor and trained befrienders on board, the roaming vehicle is also equipped with an artificial intelligence (AI) screening tool to help staff determine the level of support a person needs.

The van is part of an initiative launched on Sunday (Oct 10) - World Mental Health Day - that aims to raise awareness among Queenstown residents about the importance of mental well-being and reduce social stigma about mental health.

The initiative, Safe Pod @ Queenstown, is a collaboration between the constituency's grassroots organisations and community partners, such as social service agency Lions Befrienders and Fei Yue Community Services.

Wellness befrienders - volunteers from the community trained by Lions Befrienders - and a counsellor will man the van, which will be parked in different areas on a schedule to be announced at a later date.

Among the befrienders are students from Bukit Merah Secondary School and Queensway Secondary School, who will also offer peer support to their schoolmates.

The van's AI tool - a software program run on a laptop - will analyse residents' facial expressions and map out their positive and negative emotions.

This technology is currently being piloted by Lions Befrienders in its other initiative targeting seniors in Singapore.

Residents can also chat with counsellors in Safe Pod rooms at the Queenstown Mei Ling Residential Committee centre at Block 150 Mei Ling Street.

These counselling sessions can be booked through the Queenstown Community Centre or Leng Kee Community Club.

Mr Eric Chua, who is Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development as well as Culture, Community and Youth, helped develop the initiative.

Speaking at the launch event on Sunday, he noted: "Since Covid-19 hit our shores early last year, coping with the many changes in the way we live, work, play and learn has most certainly taken a toll on our mental well-being.

"Mental health is health. It is important that we look after our mental well-being, in the same way we would look after our physical health."

One in seven adults here would have experienced some form of mental health condition at some point in their lives, he said, citing the findings of the Singapore Mental Health Study conducted in 2016.

"The same survey also found that a large majority - as high as 78 per cent of people with mental health conditions - did not seek help," he said.

This could be due to the stigma associated with seeking help, he added, citing a 2017 study by the National Council of Social Service.

It found that six in 10 respondents believe that mental health conditions are caused by a lack of self-discipline and willpower.

More than half of the 1,796 people surveyed also indicated that they are unwilling to live with, live nearby or work with a person with a mental health condition.

"I think that is symptomatic of how little we understand mental health conditions and people with such conditions," Mr Chua told reporters.

He added: "It is time we actually dispel these misunderstandings."

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