SINGAPORE - 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 (July 30).
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 ST senior education correspondent Sandra Davie. 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 who they knew could relate.
"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."
St Patrick's School student Jayden Tan said: "(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 the Ministry of Education 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 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 short 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 where 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."
Students on challenges they face dealing with mental health issues
Chan Yi An
Year 6, Dunman High School
We all go through this rigorous education system, and I think above and beyond that, students face pressures from different facets of their lives, like personal relationships . I know a few people who put quite a lot of pressure on themselves to excel, and so it's very easy to get lost in the gaps in the sense that if you put too much pressure on yourself, you also kind of get a bit of tunnel vision at times.
JC2, Tampines Meridian Junior College
In Singapore especially, parents have a really big role in children's lives, and we always try to live up to their expectations... Sometimes parents might forget that mental health is a thing that they have to consider for their children.
Alea Hidayati Osman
Sec 4, Cedar Girls' Secondary School
My expectations for myself sometimes are as high as those from my parents, and I also have another set of expectations for myself. But as students we always have to take a step back and know what is good for us.
Sec 3, Queensway Secondary School
The peer support group in our school held a mental wellness week where one of the activities we did was that everybody got to write a card to a few of their peers. Maybe encouraging more of this kind of thing would be good. Our peer support group in our school also has an Instagram account. So, even though it's just starting, maybe in the future, it could be a way for students to share their problems.
Andrea Gracia Andradi
Year 4, Singapore Chinese Girls' School
It's very important to be understanding and to be empathetic, and to be sensitive towards whatever a person is going through. And I feel that it's important for us to be educated about how to assess situations. I also have had situations where my friend confided in me, but sometimes I find it a little difficult to respond because I'm unsure of what to say... So I think it's important for schools to teach students how to properly respond to such situations.
Sec 3, St Patrick's School
I feel like we can use social media as a good platform to spread awareness about mental health. For example, one of my teachers in school posted a video on TikTok that highlighted how social media affects our mental health, and he got us to use that as a platform for us to share our thoughts and opinions. It's through things like this that we can encourage people to be more open about mental health.
Faith Seng Zhi Xuan
JC1, Temasek Junior College
When I get upset I like to talk to other people about it. I tend to go to my friends (for support) because they are on the same level as me. So sometimes with parents or teachers, although we trust them a lot, it's just that they don't have the same perspective as us.
El 'Yez Mu' Arif
JC1, Tampines Meridian Junior College
If I approach a friend in distress without knowing how to really help her, it might make the situation worse. So, perhaps we could have more CCE (Character and Citizenship Education) lessons to help us get a clearer idea of how we can help a friend in need.
National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868 (8am - 12am)
Fei Yue's Online Counselling Service: eC2.sg 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)