Budget debate: Covid-19 mental health task force to look into post-pandemic needs, develop national strategy

The task force was originally set up to look into the psycho-social impact of the pandemic on the population. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - The Covid-19 mental health task force will be transformed into an inter-agency platform to oversee mental health and well-being efforts beyond the pandemic.

Announcing this during the debate for his ministry's budget on Friday (March 5), Senior Minister of State for Health Janil Puthucheary said the task force will focus on "cross-cutting issues that require multi- and inter-agency collaborations".

The pandemic has brought mental health issues to the forefront, with more seeking help for such conditions during the outbreak.

Dr Janil said that the task force, which was set up in October last year to look into the psycho-social impact of the pandemic on the population, has highlighted three areas to be worked on.

First, it will develop a national mental health and well-being strategy to align and guide the work of various agencies in the area. Second, it will develop a national mental health resources webpage to help individuals access useful and accurate information.

Third, it will establish a national mental health competency training framework to align and standardise training curricula on mental health in the community.

Task force chairman Chua Hong Choon told The Straits Times on Friday that the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) will lead the development of this framework.

Its work will include coming up with a national mental health curriculum for the management of mental health issues among front-line workers, and more training to bridge the knowledge gap on mental health among general practitioners.

He added that while the pandemic negatively impacted the well-being of those here in many ways, it also produced three positive outcomes.

First, multiple agencies are now coming together with renewed impetus to support people who experience mental health distress.

Second, there is greater awareness that mental health issues are not uncommon as more people come forward to share their experiences publicly.

"This helps to de-stigmatise mental health conditions, and encourage more people to self-care and seek help from the community," said Professor Chua.

Third, there is also a strong commitment at the government level to invest resources to further strengthen mental health resilience in the population.

"There is a saying within the task force that as we vaccinate ourselves against the Covid-19 virus, building resilience is our 'vaccine' against mental health issues," said Prof Chua.

The task force is to be transformed by the middle of this year, and more details will be shared when ready.

Singapore's mental health landscape

Dr Janil said in Parliament that Singapore is on track to meet its end-of-year targets for the Community Mental Health Masterplan, which was launched in 2012 and enhanced in 2017.

In 2017, then Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor had said that Singapore would set up 50 community outreach teams and 18 community intervention teams by the end of 2021.

Dr Janil updated the House that 50 community outreach teams have already been set up and reached out to over 350,000 persons with mental health or dementia needs, while 21 community intervention teams have been established to provide mental health interventions such as psycho-social therapeutic interventions and counselling; ahead of the previous timeline.

Singapore also now has over 220 general practitioners and 14 polyclinics that can provide patients with either mental health or dementia services, or both.

Speaking in the same debate, Parliamentary Secretary for Health Rahayu Mahzam added that in August last year, the "Brave the New" campaign was launched to build the psychological resilience of individuals.

The campaign provided tips for self-care, and information to support their peers and loved ones, and reached 2.1 million Singaporeans.

Ms Rahayu said that three-quarters of those surveyed reported being more motivated to help themselves or others in their mental wellbeing.

In order to complement this, the "Hi!JustCheckingIn" movement kicked off in January this year to equip targeted segments of the population with the appropriate skills to help them identify and reach out to those who may need support.

"Building a supportive community is important, to encourage Singaporeans to seek help if they are unable to cope," said Ms Rahayu.

Physical infrastructure

Dr Janil noted that refurbishment works at IMH, which began in 2018, are expected to be completed by the end of 2022.

Upon completion, IMH will have a new short-stay unit to manage patients who need a few days of observation and treatment, six upgraded acute psychiatric wards with modular flexibility for more efficient care of patients, and two new rehabilitative wards mimicking a home environment to facilitate recovery.

It will also have an upgraded child and adolescent psychiatry ward to provide inpatient psychiatric care for younger patients and an upgraded Addiction Medicine ward to facilitate recovery and rehabilitation of patients.

Helping the young and old

Turning to the subject of youth mental health, Dr Janil noted that the Integrated Youth Service - a programme giving at-risk youth access to coordinated mental health and social support services - has been piloted in partnership with the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC), IMH and community partner Care Corner.

Since April last year, the latter has begun community outreach using online platforms, and has reached out to over 2,600 users online.

Dr Janil added that MOH and AIC have also worked with other community partners to set up youth community outreach teams to reach out to young people in mental distress to provide basic emotional support and resources.

Such teams also engage families to understand stressors the youth may be facing, as well as their situation at home, and help provide links to social and health services.

Help for seniors at risk of mental health conditions or dementia

There are teams that reach out to residents and their caregivers to provide information on mental health or dementia, basic emotional support, and link them to the appropriate health or social services where necessary.

Seniors at risk of social isolation are connected to befrienders by the active ageing centres, the Silver Generation Office and local grassroots organisations.

These befrienders will reach out to the seniors on a regular basis, provide companionship and encourage them to participate in social activities. Seniors can also sign up with CareLine, a 24/7 social support hotline that provides tele-befriending services as well as emergency response to seniors in distress.

Ms Rahayu added that many seniors were mentally and physically affected during the pandemic, especially during the circuit breaker last year.

She said that last year, the virtual "Balik Kampung" programme was trialled and linked 100 seniors with 22 senior activity centres for mentally stimulating activities.

"With good feedback on how it has helped seniors stay socially connected, we will ramp up these efforts," she said.

Dr Janil said: "Our ability to get this far was the result of many years of investing in our people, facilities, systems, research and capabilities. We must learn the lessons from this experience. The preparations for the next crisis are under way and require that we keep ourselves and our healthcare system in good health. Prevention is best; preparation is also necessary."

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