Parliament: Do more to destigmatise mental health issues, says Wan Rizal

Although one in seven adults in Singapore experiences mental health issues at some point in their lives, most Singaporeans say they do not think they know such a person, said Dr Wan Rizal Wan Zakariah (Jalan Besar GRC).

The contradiction suggests many are unaware that people they know face mental health issues, do not want to know, or deny knowing such people because of the stigma associated with mental health issues, he said in Parliament yesterday.

"This is the inconvenient truth. It is common for us to label people with mental health issues as highly emotional, mentally weak, crazy or even naturally violent, and we stay away from them," he said.

While campaigns to raise awareness of mental health issues and platforms for those facing such issues to share their experiences are both important and should continue, it is also important to go further, Dr Wan Rizal said.

Speaking during an adjournment motion, the MP suggested that mental health literacy programmes be made mandatory in schools and institutes of higher learning (IHLs). Students would then be able to identify symptoms of mental health problems and be equipped to take steps to address such symptoms.

He said digital literacy for children is also important, given the impact of social media on youth mental health.

While social media is an important socialising tool, one clear negative effect of its advent is cyber bullying. Dr Wan Rizal said it is not feasible to legislate against cyber bullying, but digital literacy programmes for children might lead future generations of social media users to be more discerning and more open to upholding an "unwritten code of conduct".

Access to places in the community where people can seek help can also be improved, he added.

"The Community Mental Health Programme by the Ministry of Health must continue to expand. With 20 polyclinics and over 1,700 GP clinics in Singapore but only 14 polyclinics and about 200 GPs in the programme, the touch points currently may not be enough."

He also suggested that clinics, schools, IHLs and workplaces provide regular mental health screenings, similar to physical health screenings. Mental health "time-outs" could be introduced in schools and workplaces to let individuals take a break and recharge.

Students should also be allowed to take "mental health day" absences, Dr Wan Rizal said, and the Manpower Ministry can legislate a "right to disconnect" for workplaces, as proposed by Mr Melvin Yong (Radin Mas) in August.

In response, Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development and Culture, Community and Youth Eric Chua said the Education Ministry (MOE) is working to incorporate social and emotional skills and resilience in the school curriculum, including an enhanced character and citizenship education syllabus featuring mental health education to be rolled out next year.

Mr Chua said the inter-agency Covid-19 Mental Wellness Task Force will provide a coordinated response to the mental health needs of Singaporeans arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.

"The Government is firmly committed to work with partners in the private and public sectors, not only in eradicating stigma associated with mental health conditions but also ensuring that mental health issues remain front and centre in our collective social consciousness," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2020, with the headline Do more to destigmatise mental health issues, says Wan Rizal. Subscribe