Parliamentary Speech, Committee of Supply Debate, Fortitude Budget, 5 Jun 2020

As Singapore extends safe distancing measures to protect lives, we must remain aware of how doing so leads to not only “costs” for our economy and businesses, but real and significant detriments to our mental health. The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed “widespread psychological distress” in COVID-19 affected populations, with mental distress being reported in 35% of the population surveyed in China and 45% in the United States.

A similar picture of a “mental health pandemic” is being observed in Singapore. In an Ipsos survey of 1,000 Singaporeans between late April and early May, one in four respondents said they were not in good mental health. Our national suicide prevention hotline, operated by the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), received 23% more calls in April from March. Caregivers Alliance Limited (CAL) has shared with me that their caseloads have significantly increased in the last three months, with many care-givers reporting increases in mental health relapses and crisis incidents experienced by their care recipients, four of them have even lost their loved ones to suicide just in the last six weeks.

To deal with the psychological fallout from COVID-19, countries like New Zealand and Scotland have relied heavily on mental health experts in their COVID-19 response. The extended safe distancing measures for Phase One of exiting the circuit breaker is likely to prolong mental distress, as we continue to deal with social isolation, the lack of personal space, and disruption to routines. Would the Ministry consider appointing mental health experts for the Multi-Ministry COVID-19 Task Force, to advise on mental health implications as we extend the stringent safe distancing measures to re-open cautiously?

Singapore’s economic woes are likely to continue for the long term, as GDP growth forecasts have been downgraded from -4% to -7%. As the resident unemployment rate climbed to a 10-year high of 3.3% in March, a survey by Profile Asia indicated that many employees are facing increased levels of stress dealing with uncertainty over future pay cuts and their jobs.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng talked about seeking out “opportunities in adversity” during his Fortitude Budget Statement. The COVID-19 crisis also offers us an unprecedented opportunity in equipping businesses and workers for the rebound through improving workplace wellness. A recent report has linked business recovery from COVID-19 to a sustained focus on employee well-being. Would the Ministry consider appointing at least one mental health expert on the Emerging Stronger Task Force to advise on well-being policy interventions to strengthen our recovery from this crisis?

The Senior Minister of State for Health (Dr Amy Khor Lean Suan): The mental health of our nation is important, and the Government is committed to taking care of the mental well-being of Singaporeans, especially during this COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic has resulted in increased stressors that impact our mental well-being, given the changes in daily routines, social isolation and economic uncertainty.

Hence, more support needs to be put in place to address the mental stress that the COVID-19 pandemic and circuit breaker measures have brought about. The Multi-Ministry Task Force (MTF) recognises this and has been tapping on mental health professionals from MSF, MOH and MOE to give inputs on the psychological aspects of COVID, and in the enhancement and development of mental health initiatives.

Our public healthcare institutions (PHIs) continued to provide essential mental health services during the circuit breaker period. Some of our community mental health partners continued to conduct urgent home visits for vulnerable clients and those at risk of self-harm, harm to others, or at-risk of deterioration. Tele-consultations were also adopted by PHIs and community service providers so that they remain connected with their clients to ensure their mental health needs are supported.

A specific initiative developed is the new 24-hour National CARE Hotline (NCH). The NCH, which came into operation in April 2020, is manned by volunteers comprising trained psychologists, counsellors, social workers and other professionals, and provides support to the larger community on mental health concerns, such as anxiety and adjustment issues related to COVID-19.

For employees, MOM, along with other agencies, such as MSF, AIC and NCSS, issued an Inter-Agency Advisory with practical steps to support employees’ mental well-being and provided counselling resources for employers and workers to tap on.

For students, school counsellors continue to support those in need through face-to-face and online sessions. Vulnerable students were actively identified for further support and invited to return to school during the CB period. MOE also provided students with Holiday Care Packs containing resources and helplines on mental well-being and cyber wellness.

For the elderly, the Silver Generation Office reached out to some 47,000 vulnerable seniors to refer them to assistance as required, including befriending and mental health services. As we gradually ease movement restrictions, we have also paid special attention to addressing the well-being of seniors. The decision to allow children to visit their parents or grandparents is one example.

The Emerging Stronger Task Force (EST) was set up primarily to develop recommendations on how Singapore should refresh, reimagine or reset its economic strategies, to stay economically resilient and build new sources of dynamism in the post-COVID-19 world. Hence, besides the two co-chairs, the remaining members are industry representatives. Nonetheless, the EST has committed to consult multiple stakeholders to draw on insights beyond its membership.

MOH, together with the relevant partners and agencies, will continue to ensure that mental health support and services are accessible to persons in need. We will take into consideration the impact of COVID-19 on mental health as we undertake a whole-of-Government review of our mental health strategy and study ways to further strengthen our community mental health services to support new vulnerable groups that may emerge due to COVID-19.

The Chairman: Any clarifications?

Ms Anthea Ong: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Senior Minister of State for the response. Could I then ask if MOH has the intention to increase funding for these community health organisations? Many of them have actually shared with me that, well, we know that there is a long tail to the mental health impact and they are also sharing that increased funding would really help them in terms of increasing their capacity.

Dr Amy Khor Lean Suan: In this Fortitude Budget, MOH has an increased budget to implement many of the COVID-19 management measures. I have no doubt that even as we undertake a whole-of-Government review of our mental health strategies to strengthen mental health services, where there is a need to access additional funding, that could be put into the next Budget, if necessary.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng