Important to create space for discovery in learning: National Youth Council CEO

The average level of stress among undergraduates polled was 7.6 on a scale where 10 was the most stressed, a report found. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Universities must strike a balance between setting aside time and space for undergraduates to learn by discovery and preparing them for the rigours of a fast-paced workplace, the National Youth Council's (NYC) chief executive David Chua said on Tuesday (June 21).

He was speaking during a panel discussion at the Inter-University Network Mental Health Forum, held at Scape, following the launch of the network's UCare Mental Health Report on undergraduate mental health.

The report had found that the average level of stress among undergraduates polled was 7.6, on the higher end of a scale where 10 was the most stressed.

Mr Chua said that nowadays, "everything in the curriculum is very compact, and you are optimised to... make sure you have everything available for entering the workforce, and there is no time to discover, there is no time to wonder, there's no time to be curious, and to just learn outside of the school construct".

"I think we should make an effort collectively, whether it's the Government working with citizens, the community and individuals to recalibrate and reclaim some of that space, for that discovery.... but (not) discard discipline, because we need to make sure Singapore can survive for the future," he said, adding that there is a fine balance that needs to be struck.

Another panellist, Mr Ethan Pang, director of the University Wellbeing Office at Nanyang Technological University, said that undergraduates need to decide what is important to them, and how hard they want to push themselves in their studies.

"I know some students want to finish (their studies) as soon as possible, but is it possible to pace yourself? That's a decision that I think everyone needs to step back and look into," he said.

He added that it is important to build up the community in universities, so that it can serve as a resource in itself.

"We are constantly thinking that we need to depend on counselling services, on the professionals - yes, we must, they are there for a purpose. But at the end of the day, for the community to thrive, the community itself has to be the resource," said Mr Pang, emphasising the importance of peer support.

NYC council member and consultant psychiatrist, Mr Syed Harun Alhabsyi, said that while it is important for people to know the limits of their abilities when it comes to being peer supporters, even laymen can help others with mental health conditions by simply listening and being a friend.

"With or without formal training, we're still better than the person (in distress) not having anyone at all," he said, adding that those who wish to deepen their expertise in peer support can go for courses.

Ms Porsche Poh, executive director of Silver Ribbon (Singapore), highlighted that there is a stigma surrounding speaking to counsellors, as some young people associate it with having disciplinary issues, based on their experiences in primary and secondary school.

Others are concerned about confidentiality issues, she said, adding that there is also a need to provide affordable support for youth with mental health issues.

"It's about creating a safe space for everyone to share their struggles and speak up," she said.

A panel discussion at the Inter-University Network Mental Health Forum on June 21, 2022. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Mr Pang emphasised that there is a lot more to life than simply working towards retirement, but acknowledged that the culture surrounding the rat race is "very powerful".

He said that while universities will do what they can to tackle this issue, this culture has partially to do with expectations placed on undergraduates by employers and parents, and is also the result of going through the primary, secondary and tertiary education systems here.

But, noting that undergraduates will one day become parents and employers too, he said: "You can be that point to make that change. It has to start somewhere... I do hope you will think about it and start that change. But it's not an easy thing."

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