Parliament: Urgent need to improve affordability, accessibility and quality of mental healthcare, says NMP Anthea Ong

Nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong calls for Medisave and Medishield Life to be extended equally to physical and mental health treatment. PHOTO: SINGAPORE WOMEN'S WEEKLY

SINGAPORE - Should someone have to choose between food and mental health?

This was the unfortunate dilemma faced by a person known as Respondent #361 in a public consultation on mental health.

Sharing the results in Parliament on Wednesday (Feb 26), Nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong called for Medisave and Medishield Life to be extended equally to physical and mental health treatment.

The consultation, which saw nearly 400 respondents sharing their experiences with mental health here, was initiated by Ms Ong and carried out by volunteers from December 2019 to January this year.

It asked members of the public through an online platform about their experiences with mental health and mental healthcare in Singapore.

About 70 per cent of respondents had experienced mental health issues such as anxiety, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder, while the other 30 per cent were caregivers and mental healthcare professionals.

At least 66 per cent of the respondents said that mental healthcare costs here are high, with at least 10 stating that their financial struggles had caused them to stop seeking help.

"It broke my heart when I read one respondent having to starve to afford therapy," said Ms Ong, referring to the case of Respondent #361.

"How is it that our world-class healthcare system has denied so many people the mental healthcare that they need?"

Pointing to the difference in Medisave and Medishield Life limits on treatment for physical versus mental health, Ms Ong called for the elimination of this gap, and for Medisave to be allowed for services at government or quasi-government funded community organisations.

About 150 of the respondents indicated issues accessing mental health treatment, with 71 saying a lack of clear, trusted and consolidated information about finding resources was a barrier to seeking help.

Ms Ong suggested that the Community Health Assessment Team model of mental healthcare be adapted and expanded to the larger community. Under the Institute of Mental Health, it provides a free, confidential mental health check service and subsidised referral for public mental health services for youth.

She also highlighted that around 50 respondents indicated "grave dissatisfaction" with the quality of public mental healthcare, many of whom said they had encountered a lack of empathy from professionals in the field that was probably a result of an excessive workload.

The Health Ministry had earlier revealed that there are around 248 psychiatrists and 473 psychologists practising in Singapore, which translates to 4.4 psychiatrists and 8.3 psychologists per 100,000 people here.

Across public hospitals, the median waiting time for a new appointment for subsidised consultation is 27 days to see a psychiatrist and 28 days to see a psychologist.

"These fundamental issues in affordability, accessibility and quality of our mental healthcare must be addressed by the Government with a fierce urgency, or we risk another decade of increasing prevalence in mental illnesses," said Ms Ong.

She acknowledged that the consultation was "not an official study aligned to rigorous standards of academic research", but said that she and her team had done their due diligence in collecting and analysing all the responses, and had spoken further with some of the respondents over the phone after receiving their responses.

She added: "The mental well-being of our people... forms the bedrock of our psychological resilience and social cohesion, which may be the only sure way to secure our future in advancing as one Singapore against the headwinds ahead."

Those who wish to know more about the results of the public consultation or find resources for mental health conditions can visit this website.

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