Singapore has to step up efforts to protect children's mental health early: President Halimah

President Halimah Yacob said many with mental health conditions do not seek treatment in a timely manner. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the academic routines and social activities of many children and young people, and has had a negative impact on their mental health.

Strengthening mental health resilience is all the more important during this period, said President Halimah Yacob on Wednesday morning (Dec 2), adding that Singapore has to step up efforts to protect the mental health of children here early.

She was speaking at the virtual opening ceremony of the 24th World Congress of the International Association for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions (IACAPAP), where she outlined several strategies the Republic has adopted to bolster mental health support for its young.

Among other things, they involve collaboration with different stakeholders, promoting mental health literacy in children and young people, and improving access to mental health resources.

Highlighting youth suicide as a particular growing concern, Madam Halimah said different stakeholders such as hospitals, schools and community partners, have stepped up efforts to work together to support those at risk of suicide.

"We must tackle it by addressing the potential causes, especially when mental health conditions like anxiety and depression may intensify the problem," said the President.

Madam Halimah said that besides placing great emphasis on preventive care and focusing intervention upstream, Singapore has also made efforts to improve public education and mental health literacy in children and young people.

"It is essential to equip children with knowledge on common mental health conditions and ways to manage them, as well as develop in them empathy and care towards persons with mental health conditions," she said.

This is why mental health education will be included in a revised curriculum to be progressively implemented from next year, and all schools here will establish peer support structures by 2022 to strengthen current peer support efforts, she added.

Online initiatives have also been rolled out to enhance young people's access to mental health resources. This includes, an online portal with mental health resources that can also assess users' emotional well-being.

Madam Halimah said the Republic adopts a whole-of-society approach in building a safety net for those living with mental health conditions.

It includes training schools and social service agencies to identify and manage at-risk children with severe emotional and behavioural problems, offering free mental health checks as well as rolling out coordinated mental health and social support services for at-risk youngsters.

However, many with mental health conditions do not seek treatment in a timely manner, noted Madam Halimah.

The 2016 Singapore Mental Health Study found that more than three-quarters of those living with mental health conditions did not seek treatment.

"The delay in treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder was 11 years; four years for bipolar disorder and alcohol abuse; and two years for anxiety disorder," she said.

Various studies have shown that social stigma and a lack of knowledge about mental disorders are two common reasons for treatment delay.

Madam Halimah said: "Mental health conditions that are left untreated will impair children's development, and undermine their ability to achieve their fullest potential.

"It is therefore important that we step up efforts to protect the mental health of our children early."

The virtual congress will run till Friday, with discussions on the importance of early intervention in the child and adolescent stages for better mental health over a lifetime.

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