Parliament: Raise mental health literacy and accessibility to help to fight stigma, says Wan Rizal

Among the steps suggested by MP Wan Rizal Wan Zakariah was for mental health literacy programmes to be made mandatory in schools.
Among the steps suggested by MP Wan Rizal Wan Zakariah was for mental health literacy programmes to be made mandatory in schools.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Despite the fact that one in seven adults in Singapore experiences mental health issues at some point in his life, most Singaporeans do not think they know someone who has, said Dr Wan Rizal Wan Zakariah (Jalan Besar GRC) on Thursday (Oct 15).

This suggests that many are simply unaware that people they know face mental health issues, do not want to know, or deny knowing such people because of the stigmatisation of mental health issues, he told Parliament.

"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 - which allows an MP to speak on a subject for 20 minutes at the end of the sitting - Dr Wan Rizal 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 in themselves and their friends, and also be equipped to take additional steps to address such symptoms, Dr Wan Rizal said. Such a programme can also include elements of self-care and stress management.

"Rather than artificially creating a peer support programme in schools and IHLs led by student leaders, or handing the responsibility to teachers, lecturers or counsellors, we have an organic one where friends look out for one another because they know and they can," said Dr Wan Rizal.

In the same way schools teach students how to administer basic medical assistance using first aid kits, Dr Wan Rizal said there is a need to develop a mental health first aid kit.

Digital literacy for children is also important given the impact of social media on youth mental health, Dr Wan Rizal said.

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".

He also suggested improving ease of access to places in the community where people can seek mental health help.

"The Community Mental Health Program 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 right now, the touch points currently may not be enough."

Dr Wan Rizal also suggested that clinics, schools, IHLs and workplaces provide regular mental health screenings, similar to physical health screenings. Those found to be at risk or to have symptoms of mental illness can then be referred to an appropriate clinic.

"The objective is to get people engaged early, before the illness has effects on their brain, disrupts their lives, and risks them doing something that would harm themselves or others," Dr Wan Rizal said.

Mental health "time-outs" can also 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 much has already been done to fight stigma against mental health conditions, including the annual Beyond the Label campaign organised by the National Council for Social Services (NCSS) since 2018 and various other programmes.

The Education Ministry (MOE) is also working to incorporate social and emotional skills as well as resilience in the school curriculum, Mr Chua said.

"Next year, the MOE will introduce the enhanced character and citizenship education (syllabus) featuring mental health education. It will include topics such as understanding common mental health issues and symptoms, and developing empathy towards people struggling with mental health conditions," he added.

Mr Chua said the recently convened inter-agency Covid-19 Mental Wellness Task Force will provide a coordinated national 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.