Youth Mental well-being

Having 'trusted buddy' to turn to is key

At a dialogue with Education Minister Chan Chun Sing on mental well-being on Friday night, eight Singapore teenagers reveal why peers are so important to them in coping with the stresses of daily life

Education Minister Chan Chun Sing, with Straits Times senior education correspondent Sandra Davie as moderator, at Friday's mental well-being dialogue with junior college and secondary school students. During the session, the students also described
Education Minister Chan Chun Sing, with Straits Times senior education correspondent Sandra Davie as moderator, at Friday's mental well-being dialogue with junior college and secondary school students. During the session, the students also described the schoolwide mental wellness initiatives they had participated in or helped to start. Taking part virtually in the dialogue were (top row, from left) Sophia Lai (Sec 3, Queensway Secondary School), Andrea Gracia Andradi (Year 4, Singapore Chinese Girls' School) and Jayden Tan (Sec 3, St Patrick's School); and (bottom row, from left) El'Yez Mu'Arif (JC1, Tampines Meridian JC) and Faith Seng (JC1, Temasek JC). In the studio were (from left) Alea Hidayati Osman (Sec 4, Cedar Girls' Secondary School), Chan Yi An (Year 6, Dunman High School) and Shreya Chandrababu (JC2, Tampines Meridian JC).ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

A young person's peers offer understanding and support that the adults in their life may not be able to, so schools will work to set up systems in which every child would have a trusted buddy to go to, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing told eight teenagers at a dialogue on mental well-being on Friday night.

The reality that young people often turn to their friends first also underscores the need to equip students with the skills to properly listen to their peers, so they can help them cope with problems of their generation, he added.

The event with Mr Chan and eight students from secondary schools and junior colleges was organised by The Straits Times and moderated by Ms Sandra Davie, the publication's senior education correspondent. Three students were physically present, while the rest dialled in virtually.

When faced with a problem or if they were upset, many participants said they would confide in someone whom they knew could relate to what they were going through.

"I usually tend to go to friends," said Temasek Junior College student Faith Seng. "Parents or teachers, although we trust them a lot... they don't have the same perspective as us."

Added St Patrick's School student Jayden Tan: "(My friends) know me well, they know there are certain challenges I face. We have a rather strong bond."

But others expressed uncertainty if the situation were reversed, and a friend approached them with a problem.

"I think me as a friend, approaching her without the proper knowledge of how to help her, that might affect how she might perceive things," said Tampines Meridian Junior College student El'Yez Mu'Arif of a friend in mental distress.

"Perhaps we could have more CCE (Character and Citizenship Education) lessons... a continuous effort in making us more certain of how we can approach our friends."

Responding to these comments, Mr Chan said his ministry hopes to institute a peer support programme under which every student will have a buddy they can trust. Those who are providing peer support must also be equipped with the skills to listen effectively, he added.

"The challenges of your generation are quite different from the challenges of our generation. So you want somebody whom you can relate to, and somebody who can understand your issues," Mr Chan observed. "Because if you say Fomo, some of us (who are) older may not know what is Fomo. You all use a different lingo."

Fomo is an acronym that stands for "fear of missing out", and is often used to describe the anxiety felt when a person perceives that their peers are doing or achieving more than them.

During the hour-long dialogue, students also described the schoolwide mental wellness initiatives they had participated in or helped to start.

For instance, peer support leaders at Cedar Girls' Secondary School organise activities for students to learn coping mechanisms such as meditation or mindfulness.

Secondary 4 student Alea Hidayati Osman spoke of a session in which she picked up breathing techniques to help her deal with stress. "I think that it has been effective, because as students we get stressed out really easily, over very trivial things even," she said.

"Through the breathing exercises... I actually know how to de-stress and really acknowledge my emotions, and try not to neglect them whereby my mental health state gets worse."

Participants also discussed the stigma surrounding mental health issues, with some pointing out that seeing the school counsellor or admitting to mental health struggles can be seen as a sign of weakness. They said efforts should be actively made to change such attitudes.

"I think one way to tackle this would be to raise awareness... that it is something that is ever-present, and it is something that shouldn't be rare and shouldn't be ridiculed," said Dunman High School's Chan Yi An, who has helped spearhead a social media campaign to advocate for students with mental health issues.

Doing so creates a safe space for people to step forward and share their struggles, he added.

"And, in that sense, they'll be encouraged to pick themselves back up with the necessary help."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 01, 2021, with the headline 'Having 'trusted buddy' to turn to is key'. Subscribe