Mental health advocates welcome plans to have more school counsellors but say barriers remain

The vigour directed towards addressing gaps in Singapore's mental health system in the past two weeks has given some hope. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Mental health advocates and social service agencies welcome having more school counsellors in Singapore's labour-strapped mental health system.

But they say structural barriers should be addressed too.

Former NMP Anthea Ong said the plan to increase the number of teacher counsellors deployed in schools from more than 700 to over 1,000 in the next few years is a first step in aiding "grossly under-resourced schools" in mental health support for students.

Education Minister Chan Chun Sing had announced the "near term" measures in Parliament last Tuesday in his ministerial statement.

Currently, every Ministry of Education school has one or two counsellors.

Ms Ong, who is the founder of initiative SG Mental Health Matters, which reviews Singapore's mental health policies, added: "You can increase from one to two or three counsellors per school but how they are trained, evaluated and given continuous development is what matters."

High costs for treatment, long wait times and social stigma are among key barriers that social workers and mental health advocates say remain unsolved.

According to the Institute of Mental Health's website, using MediSave to pay for inpatient psychiatric treatment is limited to $150 per day and a maximum of $5,000 each year. It can also be used for outpatient treatment of schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety, subject to a 15 per cent co-payment by the patient for each claim.

Highlighting the gap between Medisave and Medishield Life claim limits on treatment for physical versus mental health, Ms Ong renewed her call for eliminating this difference, and for Medisave to be allowed for services at government or quasi-government funded community organisations so that young people and those who have less resources are not deterred from seeking help because of cost.

In January last year, the Health Ministry said the waiting time for new subsidised appointments at public hospitals in 2018 was 27 days to see a psychiatrist and 28 days to see a psychologist. Social workers told The Sunday Times that waiting times are much longer since the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some opt for private healthcare as a result, said Head of Shine Children and Youth Services' community outreach team ResiL!ence Eric Sng who added that private treatment can range between $4,000 and $5,000 with an average rate of $120 per session.

"Maybe it's time to review this because there could be the impression that mental health treatment is less costly,"said Mr Sng, noting that he met a young person in their 20s who could not afford treatment.

But the vigour directed towards addressing gaps in the system in the past two weeks has given some hope.

Ms Geraldine Tan, a mother of three children aged between 12 and 20, said: "Many friends, with young who harbour suicidal thoughts, have asked me what (school) counselling is like since one of my children received such help after being bullied in secondary school.

"I tell them that the system has benefited my children as well as myself," she added, "And I hope that, with more acceptance, many can seek help for mental health like we do for other illnesses."

Getting help

National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868 (8am - 12am)

Mental well-being

Fei Yue's Online Counselling Service: website (Mon to Fri, 10am to 12pm, 2pm to 5pm)
Institute of Mental Health's Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222 (24 hours)
Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444 (24 hours) /1-767 (24 hours)
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
Silver Ribbon Singapore: 6386-1928/6509-0271 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788 (Mon to Fri, 2.30pm to 5pm)/ Tinkle Friend website (Mon to Thu, 2.30pm to 7pm and Fri, 2.30pm to 5pm)


TOUCHline (Counselling): 1800-377-2252 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800 (Daily, 10am to 10pm)

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