Youth on board for mental wellness drive

HappYouth project trains them to spot signs of depression and reach out to affected peers

MP Tin Pei Ling (in blue dress) at a dialogue with HappYouth leaders.
MP Tin Pei Ling (in blue dress) at a dialogue with HappYouth leaders.PHOTO: CHARACTER AND LEADERSHIP ACADEMY

A 17-year-old girl went straight home after school last month, not to hit the books but to jump off the rooftop of her block.

She missed her mother, who died when she was young, and she had trouble fitting into her new family when her father remarried. She had also been sexually abused by her former boyfriend.

A timely call from her sister averted a tragedy. The teen had started cutting herself after developing depression two years ago.

She had also tried to kill herself previously by taking pills and downing detergents.

"She felt she had no one to talk to. But she said the reason she keeps going to school is that her classmates offer her words of encouragement every morning and listen to her rants," said youth trainer Amalina Rozman, 25, who the teen confided in at a school camp she conducted last month.


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The camp was part of a new three-year nationwide movement, called HappYouth, to train 10,000 young people every year to spot signs of depression and reach out to their affected peers.

Since it started in January, 4,700 students aged 13 to 18 from 11 secondary schools and a tertiary institution have received mental health training. Some student leaders from the schools also gather for sharing sessions every month.

As part of the project, youth trainers conduct assembly talks, workshops or camps in schools to teach young people how to tell stress and depression apart, cope with their emotions in a crisis and reach out to friends with mental health issues.

Youth leaders, for example, will be trained to ask the right questions and dig deep to detect subtle signals, persuade a suicidal person to seek treatment or talk to someone, and refer him or her to the relevant help agency.

The project is led by Character and Leadership Academy, a charity run by youth training firm Agape Group Holdings, and is expected to cost $400,000.

The National Youth Council, Health Promotion Board and Singapore Turf Club have come up with a portion of the funds and Agape is seeking more sponsors.

Said Agape chief executive Delane Lim: "We hope to equip our youth with the necessary skills and strategies early so that they are better able to cope with the stresses of growing up in a rapidly changing world.

"It is important to target youth as young people tend to be more comfortable sharing these issues with their friends."

Agape has done face-to-face interviews with 3,000 people aged 13 to 21 since the start of the year, and found that one in 50 has suicidal thoughts and one in 200 has attempted suicide before.

"Most of them who have suicidal tendencies tend to lack good parenting as they come from single-parent families, or one parent is in jail or frequently absent," said Mr Lim.

The project comes at a time when medical institutions are seeing more young people with depression. Over the last decade, young people below 30 accounted for about one in five suicides here.

"Youth depression and mental wellness are key concerns not just for individuals or families, but also for the society at large," said MP Tin Pei Ling, deputy chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Social and Family Development.

"Building a nation of happy and resilient youth is necessary to secure our future as a robust and positive, forward-looking country that can withstand any challenge that comes our way," added Ms Tin.

Agape also hopes to work with parents, although there are no details yet. It has already partnered religious groups, such as the Taoist Federation, to reach out to their young members.

Said Mr Lim: "Every suicide we read about in the papers is a tragedy too many. People around them need to know how to sense the signs and prevent it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2016, with the headline 'Youth on board for mental wellness drive'. Print Edition | Subscribe