New youth counselling service gets over 170 calls in first week of operations

Helpline volunteers in helpline booths (background) tending to calls to Youthline. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE – After leaving his engineer job of more than 30 years, Mr Lawrence Leong wanted to do something meaningful with his free time, and decided to take up courses to become a freelance counsellor.

“One of the main inspirations is my wife, who was a nurse. She is very giving and shows concern for not only her patients, but also family, friends and even strangers,” said the 75-year-old, who described himself as conservative and quiet.

Mr Leong is one of 307 volunteers helping out at youth counselling service Youthline, a non-profit organisation that was established by a team of professionals from different backgrounds, including Catholic priest Father Simon Pereira.

Launched in November 2022, the organisation aims to create a safe and non-judgmental space for all young people regardless of race and religion, providing a helpline service and free counselling support for those aged 18 to 35.

Said Mr Marc Khoo, chairman of Youthline: “The needs of the young are very unique. They are in a phase of life where they go through many transition phases, and they are constantly inundated with information on social media.

“If you look at the statistics, mental health issues are a major challenge for them.”

Youthline volunteers whom The Straits Times spoke to said some of the most common problems are loneliness, family issues and studies.

According to statistics in 2022 from the suicide prevention non-profit organisation Samaritans of Singapore, the number of suicides among young people aged 10 to 29 hit a record 112 in 2021, since its earliest recorded data in 2000. Its crisis hotline logged a 127 per cent increase in calls from those aged 10 to 19 from 2020 to 2021.

Youthline’s helpline service, which runs from 9am till midnight daily, received more than 170 calls within its first week of operation. The number doubled the following week.

To meet a projected increase in service demand, Mr Khoo said the organisation plans to raise $5 million by the second half of 2023, which will go towards funding a bigger office in a convenient and central location, and recruiting more permanent staff to help with operations.

The organisation is currently located at social service hub Agape Village in Toa Payoh, and is mostly run by volunteers.

End-to-end therapy platform Talk Your Heart Out (TYHO) has also seen a steady rise in the number of new clients every month, said co-founder Chirag Agarwal.

“We believe one of the reasons for this is people along the entire spectrum of mental health are starting to see the benefit of seeking professional help,” he added.

“They understand that you don’t need to wait till you are in crisis to benefit from therapy.”

During the pandemic, he said, many clients struggled with social isolation and loneliness due to movement and crowd restrictions, while others were stressed by factors such as greater difficulty in finding employment or the threat of retrenchment.

Youthline’s chairman Marc Khoo and executive director Sandra Loo. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

“As we emerge from the pandemic, what we have observed is that people are also seeking therapy for self-improvement and growth,” added Mr Agarwal.

“For example, they want to improve their communication skills in a relationship, become more confident at work, or achieve lasting habit change.”

The chief well-being officer of Singapore Counselling Centre, Mr John Shepherd Lim, said the centre drew a higher number of clients during the pandemic, and the trend has been maintained since.

He added that the greater emphasis placed on mental health during the pandemic through initiatives such as the National Care Hotline (NCH) and expanded engagement by social service agencies, youth groups and organisations helped to shift attitudes towards therapy, with individuals becoming more open to attending counselling sessions.

NCH’s operations ceased on Saturday owing to a decrease in calls received. It was launched in April 2020 amid the circuit breaker to provide assistance to those experiencing emotional distress related to the pandemic.

Freelance creative Daniel Teo, 37, decided to seek out therapy with TYHO during the circuit breaker in 2020, as he was feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic, but was initially hesitant due to a bad experience in his youth with a therapist who lacked empathy.

His fears were allayed when he was connected to his current therapist, whom he has engaged with for two years.

Mr Teo said: “Therapy has equipped me with self-understanding, as well as self-support and de-escalation strategies. And of course, if I can’t manage alone, I can always count on my therapist to have my back.”

He added that he believes therapy should be thought of in the same light as a routine health check-up or dental appointment.

“I know now that it isn’t a magic bullet. You’re not going to be ‘cured’, which in itself is an unhelpful and unhealthy way to approach mental health,” said Mr Teo.

“Instead, therapy is about understanding and unlearning one’s bad habits, and learning how to manage the ups and downs of life in healthier ways.”

Members of the public who wish to donate to Youthline can do so via its website.

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