More struggling with alcohol abuse, but seeking help earlier

Latest S'pore mental health study finds the rise in prevalence of this disorder especially significant

A growing number of people here are struggling to cope with alcohol abuse, though more are seeking help for the condition earlier than was the case before, a nationwide mental health study has revealed.

The second Singapore Mental Health Study, which was conducted in 2016, showed that in the six years that separated it from the first study, the issue had become more serious.

Almost 13.9 per cent - or one in seven people here - admitted that they had experienced mental illness at some point in their life.

This was an increase from the 12 per cent - or one in eight people - who said the same thing in the first study in 2010.

Touching on the general trend, Dr Mythily Subramaniam, the research division director of the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), said: "Younger cohorts have a higher prevalence of mental illness, possibly because they are more aware of it and willing to talk about their symptoms."

The study examined common mental illnesses, such as mood disorders - depression and bipolar disorder; anxiety disorders - obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and generalised anxiety disorder; and alcohol use disorders - alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence.

It found that depression, alcohol abuse and OCD remained the top three mental disorders in Singapore, according to the findings released yesterday.

  • 13.9%

  • Percentage of people who admitted experiencing mental illness at some point in their life, in the health study that was conducted in 2016.

While most mental disorders registered a rise in prevalence, it was especially significant in the case of alcohol abuse, where the lifetime prevalence jumped from 3.1 per cent in 2010 to 4.1 per cent in the latest study, which involved personal interviews with 6,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents above the age of 18.

This means one in 24 people here now battles alcohol abuse, compared with one in 32 in 2010.

The condition is described as one in which alcohol consumption prevents sufferers from fulfilling their obligations at work, school or home, or puts them in situations that are physically hazardous, such as driving while drunk.

  • Over 75% of those with mental disorders don't seek help

  • The proportion of people with a mental disorder who do not get treated continued to remain high, based on results of the second Singapore Mental Health Study conducted in 2016.

    More than three-quarters of people did not seek professional help, such as from psychiatrists, counsellors, or religious and spiritual advisers.

    This was similar to results from the first study conducted in 2010, said Dr Mythily Subramaniam, director of the research division at the Institute of Mental Heath (IMH).

    "Certain deeply entrenched problems like stigma continue in Singapore society," she added. "And therefore, people sometimes know that they have an illness but they are unwilling to seek treatment, and that is something we need to address using anti-stigma campaigns."

    Professor Kwok Kian Woon, a sociologist from Nanyang Technological University, said that building a culture in tertiary educational institutions and workplaces where colleagues and fellow students look out for one another is key to reducing stigma.

    "It really helps that you have friends or classmates who encourage you to see a counsellor because the friends themselves are aware of certain kinds of conditions and that things are not going right for you," added Prof Kwok, who is a co-investigator of the study.

    In fact, students in institutes of higher learning here are aware of mental health issues and have peer support groups, said Professor Chua Hong Choon, chief executive of IMH.

    But more work can be done in helping young people understand the cultural use of certain terms when it comes to mental health conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder, and what those struggling with such conditions actually need help with, he added.

    Felicia Choo

Researchers said those who struggled with alcohol use disorders tended to be lower-educated men aged between 18 and 34.

The good news is that alcohol abuse here is less prevalent than in countries such as South Korea (8 per cent), the United States (13.2 per cent) and Japan (15.1 per cent).

Also, while in the 2010 study, alcohol abusers delayed their treatment for up to 13 years, they now typically seek help within four years.

Both studies showed that a smaller proportion, or 0.5 per cent of the population, suffered from alcohol dependence.

This refers to a condition where a person is hit with withdrawal symptoms when intake is stopped, among other things.

Individuals with alcohol dependence sought help from a professional almost immediately - within one year - after the start of associated symptoms.

This trend of seeking treatment earlier was also reflected for other mental disorders, except for people who had OCD.

They delayed getting help by 11 years in the 2016 study, up from nine years in 2010.

Some 3.6 per cent of people here reported suffering from OCD, which is higher than in South Korea (0.7 per cent) or the US (1.6 per cent).

There was also a rise in the prevalence of people having two or more mental disorders at the same time.

The $4.9 million IMH study was done in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Nanyang Technological University.

It did throw up one bright spot, which was that addiction to nicotine decreased from 4.5 per cent in 2010 to 3.2 per cent in 2016.

"That tells us that people are smoking less or they are trying to quit, even though smoking per se did not go down," said Dr Mythily, who is the co-principal investigator of the study.

"It is because of the very strong anti-smoking laws that have come into play in the last few years."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2018, with the headline 'More struggling with alcohol abuse, but seeking help earlier'. Print Edition | Subscribe