Coronavirus: Free teleconsultations for those in need of mental health support

Experts had earlier warned that the isolation, fear and stress could be detrimental to mental health here. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Feeling stressed by the latest Covid-19 control measures or looking for someone to talk to about your work-from-home worries?

Help will soon be just a tap on the screen away under a new free service provided by local health technology company MHC Asia Group.

The firm, which aggregates medical resources, has brought together a team of over 60 professional counsellors from various private practices in Singapore and made their services available through teleconsultation on an app.

Experts had earlier warned that the isolation, fear and stress experienced during the Covid-19 outbreak could be detrimental to mental health here.

MHC chief executive officer Eric Koh told The Straits Times on Monday that he decided to launch the service after reading articles about divorce rates shooting up in ageing societies.

In these cases, the divorces occurred after husbands retired and found themselves spending an extended period of time with their spouses.

When the circuit breaker measures to control the coronavirus here were announced on April 3, Mr Koh realised that there was a risk of something similar happening here, as families would have to spend more time than usual living together.

"You don't want to solve this economic and health problem and then have a social problem to deal with," he said.

"Singapore is formulated on the premise of family - it's very important for us to keep families intact, keep our mental health in order."

So he and his team got in touch with trained counsellors from practices around Singapore that they had worked with in the past. The counsellors were invited to offer their services on the MHC BetterHealth app, which is run by local clinic Intemedical 24 Hour Clinic.

Members of the public can access the service for free on the app until June 30, but this may be extended depending on how the coronavirus situation here develops.

The counselling service will be available 24/7, with about four to six counsellors on standby during the night.

In addition to providing professional support, counsellors will be able to direct those who need other forms of assistance to the various resources and helplines that are available.

Mr Koh said the bills for all the teleconsultations will be paid for by his company.

He hopes that this initiative will encourage people to step up and help one another during the Covid-19 crisis.

He said: "If everyone does a small part, it becomes a very big movement... As fellow citizens, the support of one another is all we have."

Dr Raymond Ong, managing director of Intemedical 24 Hour Clinic, said: "We understand that many Singaporeans are under a lot of stress in the current situation, so we were thinking about alternative means of serving our population."

The clinic will be absorbing the cost of having the telecounselling function coded into its app.

Charities such as Care Singapore, Fei Yue Community Services and Silver Ribbon had earlier launched free online counselling services to help people cope with the stress of the outbreak.

And more than 40 psychologists have answered the Singapore Psychological Society's rallying call to offer therapy at a discounted rate or free during the Covid-19 crisis.

The full list of these professionals can be found at this website.

One of them, Dr Emily Ortega, a lecturer in psychology at the Singapore University of Social Sciences and a sports psychologist, said: "I work with athletes, and one of the biggest things they face is learning to cope with anxiety, and how to manage an uncertain situation. There are some parallels with the current situation here that allow me to help people affected by it."

She is providing free additional counselling, done via phone calls or communication apps, to those affected by the outbreak, on top of doing her day job.

Over the past few days, she has had to take many calls for assistance at night after finishing her work. But she is persevering.

"I take this as a service for my nation," she said.

Another group that has taken its services online is the Singapore National Stroke Association (SNSA), which has started conducting exercise sessions for its members using video-conferencing platform Zoom.

SNSA said carrying out sessions on a virtual platform has allowed members who have difficulty leaving the house to join in. Through such sessions, it hopes to help its members keep fit during the coronavirus crisis.

Those interested in joining in the activities can visit Singapore National Stroke Association's website, e-mail contact or call SNSA on 6222-9514.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus: Free teleconsultations for those in need of mental health support. Subscribe