Task force set up to boost mental health support for migrant workers

Key areas of focus include raising awareness, enabling at-risk workers to be identified early

Dr Jared Ng, a consultant for emergency and crisis services at the Institute of Mental Health and the Ministry of Manpower's Assurance, Care and Engagement Group, conducting a psychological first-aid class for front-line officers yesterday. The new t
Migrant workers at the S11 Dormitory in Punggol in April. Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng said migrant workers living in dormitories have faced significant anxiety and stress during the Covid-19 pandemic, and that it was important to care for other aspects of their well-being, beyond their physical needs. ST FILE PHOTO
Dr Jared Ng, a consultant for emergency and crisis services at the Institute of Mental Health and the Ministry of Manpower's Assurance, Care and Engagement Group, conducting a psychological first-aid class for front-line officers yesterday. The new t
Dr Jared Ng, a consultant for emergency and crisis services at the Institute of Mental Health and the Ministry of Manpower’s Assurance, Care and Engagement Group, conducting a psychological first-aid class for front-line officers yesterday. The new task force will step up efforts to equip front-line officers, dormitory operators, employers and NGOs with the skills and information needed to identify at-risk workers early, and channel them towards getting the right care. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

A new task force has been set up to boost mental healthcare and support for migrant workers in Singapore.

Called Project Dawn, it will comprise representatives from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), Institute of Mental Health (IMH), Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) and non-governmental organisation (NGO) HealthServe, as well as government psychologists.

Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng, who provided details of the initiative at an event yesterday, explained that the name Dawn is an acronym for depression (a common mental health issue), awareness, wellness and normalisation.

The task force will focus on several key areas, including raising awareness of mental health issues and screening migrant workers who may have mental health problems. It will also step up efforts to equip front-line officers, dormitory operators, employers and NGOs with the skills and information needed to identify at-risk workers early, and channel them towards getting the right care.

Other areas of focus will include looking out for signs of mental and emotional distress among migrant workers, and training para-counsellors as part of efforts to make counselling services available to migrant workers who need it.

The initiatives will be rolled out over a two-year period.

Dr Tan said migrant workers living in dormitories have faced significant anxiety and stress during the Covid-19 pandemic, and that it was important to care for other aspects of their well-being, beyond their physical needs.

HealthServe executive director Michael Cheah said its counselling hotline received about 250 calls a week during the circuit breaker period. The calls to HealthServe - an NGO that helps provide medical care and other services to migrant workers - have fallen to about 20 calls a week now, he added.

Migrant workers are still adjusting despite the situation slowly returning to normal, he said.

Migrant workers tend to have poorer mental health than the general population, said Dr Jared Ng, a consultant for emergency and crisis services at IMH and MOM's Assurance, Care and Engagement Group.

This could be due to a variety of stress factors, such as being worried about their loved ones or the stigmatisation they face as migrants, he added.

"Migrant workers also need to adjust to a new culture, new norms and a new way of life in Singapore and these are stressors as well," said Dr Ng.

Mr Veluchamy Muniapparaj, 35, a migrant worker from India who is also an MWC ambassador, said he welcomed the move to address mental health issues among migrant workers as it would give them greater peace of mind knowing that their emotional needs were being looked out for.

"Many of us were anxious when Covid-19 first happened. We didn't know how long it would last, and some of us had issues back home that we could not attend to because of the quarantine," he said.

"Now things are better. Our basic needs are taken care of, but knowing that the authorities are there to hear our problems and offer more support is a step further."

Dr Tan said supporting workers' mental health is a work in progress. He added that MOM will continue to look for ways to collaborate with NGOs, whose work the ministry is "deeply grateful for and very appreciative of".

More will be done in the coming months to make mental health resources more culturally relevant for migrant workers.

For instance, Mr Cheah said HealthServe is hoping to bring on board counsellors from the home countries of the migrant workers to help with counselling sessions.

Having someone who understands their culture and environment is likely to bring more comfort and relief to distressed workers, he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2020, with the headline 'Task force set up to boost mental health support for migrant workers'. Subscribe