Plans are in the works to better support migrant workers' mental health and allow them more freedom to leave their dormitories, as a recent spate of suicides and attempted suicides raises concerns about their mental well-being.
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) told The Straits Times yesterday that while it had not seen a spike in the number of suicides among migrant workers "compared to previous years", it was watching the situation closely and working with partners and groups to give migrant workers more mental health support.
Incidents reported by media and videos shared online have renewed concerns over the mental and emotional health of workers, many of whom have spent the last few months confined to their living quarters.
In some instances, workers have put themselves at risk by standing on window or building ledges, or died in their dorms.
Since May, there have been at least five workers detained under the Mental Health Act after attempting to hurt themselves, and at least two reported cases of workers dying of unnatural causes in dorms.
ACCESS TO COUNSELLING
MOM said its investigations showed incidents tend to stem from issues migrant workers faced back home, with their marriages or families, or unforeseen incidents in their home countries. Workers suffered distress because they were unable to return home easily.
The ministry said it was working on getting workers back home. "But as there are various factors involved, such as ensuring that these workers have recovered and have taken a swab test as required by some home countries, we seek employers' and workers' understanding that it may take some time for workers to be able to return home," it said.
MOM also said it was working with workers' groups to ensure they have access to counselling and support, providing workers with information in a timely manner, and finding ways to reduce the time they spend in their rooms.
The first dorms were isolated in early April to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Currently, workers staying in the dorms still cannot leave the premises for the most part, even on their rest days.
Those cleared for work have to return to their dorm immediately after work. Since yesterday, however, workers have been able to leave their dorms to run specified essential errands, such as medical appointments or banking services, with approval from their employers or dorm operators.
Stress, caused by quarantines and uncertainty over personal health, families and jobs, has been building up among migrant workers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) told ST.
Many of these groups have been calling attention to the psychological impact of movement restrictions on the vulnerable and low-paid group since the pandemic started.
Senior Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad told ST on Tuesday that there will be a "relaxation from the current position" to explore ways for workers to safely leave the dorms, for example through staggered rest days.
"These are part of the support we will give as we transition to the next stage... We are not ready to release them completely to the community, but you can't keep them cooped up," he said.
9 in 10
Proportion of migrant workers who have been given the all-clear as of Tuesday.
MOM said it had staggered times for workers to leave their rooms to access common areas, and worked with NGOs to schedule activities. For instance, HealthServe conducts activities such as exercise sessions for workers staying on cruise ships three times a week.
The ministry said that when community and dormitory cases have been sustained at low levels for a period of time, workers would be able to leave their dormitories for the recreational centres (RCs) "in a measured and safe manner".
"It is imperative for us to manage not just their personal health with regard to Covid-19, but also their mental health," added Mr Zaqy.
HealthServe, the main charity here with mental health services for migrant workers, said it has counselled over 700 foreign workers since it launched its virtual counselling clinic in late April.
While the number of cases it sees of workers in distress has dropped slightly from June to July, the intensity of the cases has heightened.
Its head of communications and engagement, Ms Suwen Low, said: "There are more high-risk cases coming to us, which include instances of self-harm and suicide ideation."
LOOKING OUT FOR THE DISTRESSED
In the last two weeks, the number of cases which have presented thoughts of suicide has tripled, with about 10 per cent being more serious, she added.
Meanwhile, daily calls to the Migrant Workers' Centre helpline have increased by three times, said chairman Yeo Guat Kwang, noting that when a caller displays emotional or mental distress the case is escalated to professional counsellors or mental health professionals.
Migrant Workers' Centre 6536-2692
Transient Workers Count Too 6297-7564
Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics 6341-5535
Samaritans of Singapore 1800-221-4444
Singapore Association for Mental Health 1800-283-7019
Institute of Mental Health's Mobile Crisis Service 6389-2222
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin) 1800-353-5800
Silver Ribbon 6386-1928
Ms Low said HealthServe usually sees the most severe migrant worker cases. "For workers, frustrations and anxiety have been around since the start, but of course this is made worse by the prolonged confinement," she said.
Added Ms Low: "For many of them, the question is 'when, when can I leave the cruise ship', 'when can I leave the dorm', 'when can I go back to my country?'"
Stepping up vigilance to keep an eye out for workers in distress are the Forward Assurance and Support (Fast) teams, which are teams of police and MOM officers and soldiers deployed to the dorms.
In view of recent events, they will assess if a worker may benefit from speaking to a mental health counsellor, said the ministry.
"We have also worked with IMH to train and better equip front-line staff with the knowledge and skills to help workers who may require support," MOM added.
In the meantime, the ministry said it had made "considerable effort" to keep workers up to date on Covid-19-related efforts, through daily messages and also materials in their languages. "These materials encourage workers to identify symptoms of distress, look out for one another, be a buddy to a friend, and know where to seek help," it said.
To reduce the number of workers staying in the dorms, some of the 300,000 migrant workers were housed on cruise ships, in hotels, vacant Housing Board blocks and military camps.
The authorities expect to clear all dorms - save for 17 blocks in eight purpose-built dorms - of Covid-19 by the beginning of this month, and as of Tuesday, nine in 10, or about 273,000 workers, have been given the all-clear.
In June, amendments were made to foreign manpower rules that codified certain protocols related to workers staying in the dorms, including the need for employers to ensure they have access to food and necessities and also the need for employer consent should a worker need to leave the dorm.
The latter in particular caused concern among NGOs like the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), and former Nominated MP Anthea Ong.
In a joint statement, the trio along with other groups said the changes would "negatively impact workers' already worsening mental health" and said the restrictions would be an added challenge for the men.
"The volatile economic situation has made it necessary for workers to seek financial assistance to meet basic needs, obtain employment advice and look for new jobs. Restricting their mobility will make it more challenging for them to seek help and protect their livelihoods," said the statement.
Still, even if workers are allowed to return to work and what likely will be a muted form of recreational activities on their rest days, psychiatrist Lim Boon Leng said it might not resolve their anxieties.
He said the majority will be all right but there will be some who will face difficulties adjusting.
"There might be a minority who may have lapsed into depressive or anxiety disorders. There is the need to make sure they receive the proper treatment for this," he said.