Mandating Mental Health Education in Schools

Parliamentary Speech: Budget Debate 2019

Mr. Chairman, there was one to two suicides a month in 2016 between 10–19 year olds. Number of young Singaporeans seeking help for mental health issues jumped by 190% in 2018. Depression affects up to 18% of youth in Singapore. Almost half of the teenagers polled in a local research attached negative and pejorative labels to people with mental health issues. 50% of mental health conditions develop in children of age 14 or below, according to global studies.

The Minister agrees in his response to my recent PQ that ‘mental health is an issue to be taken seriously’. Stigma poses a huge barrier to seeking help. With greater awareness, more people are stepping forward to seek help. Encouragingly; the 2016 Singapore Mental Health Study found a narrowing in the treatment gap, noting a decrease in the percentage of those not seeking help from 82.1% in 2010 to 78.4% in 2016.

Mental health education plays a big role in re-scripting public narrative and understanding of mental health. Our current vocabulary of mental health is heavily influenced by the medical model which can pathologise human experiences. Increasingly, we have been moving towards a recovery-oriented culture. This demands a new language to be taught. The recovery language and one anchored upon strengths and resilience must be learnt and permeate our vernacular.

Mental health literacy is not a frivolity but a necessity. In the absence of which, we find rampant misconceptions that mental illness is “contagious,” “weakness” and unfairly engage in victim-blaming. With greater understanding and support, help-seeking need not be shrouded in secrecy or looked upon as being shameful.

We can do more beyond the occasional assembly talks on mental health, optional enrichment classes on wellness and offers of counselling as interventions for behaviour modification (often construed as punishment by students). We can teach the recovery language and encourage dialogue to dissolve stigma. Our children and our youths can be the mental health first aiders of every household.

Mandating mental health education in our schools and Institutes of Higher Learning is the surest signal to normalise mental health, together with providing support structures for parents and families to be equipped with emotional management skills, coping mechanisms, and problem solving skills to help our children and youth better navigate stress.

Partnering social service agencies and mental health professionals in the curriculum curation and provision of mental health education in all schools must be a way forward. How does the Ministry plan to make mental health education accessible for all, whether students, teachers, administrators, parents and caregivers?

The Senior Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education (Assoc Prof Dr Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim):

1. Beyond being sound in values, our students will also need to be mentally strong and resilient to be well prepared for the future. In response to Ms Anthea Ong, mental health and wellness education is important work that we have been doing in schools. From Primary school, we teach social and emotional skills to equip our students to overcome challenges and handle the demands of life, educate them on common mental health conditions and clarify inaccurate perceptions of mental issues. In addition, we have introduced a training programme in schools which equips students to be peer supporters to help identify distress among their friends and be supportive. Through co-curricular activities, outdoor camps and community service, opportunities are also provided to develop resilience and confidence.

2. Nonetheless, mental health is a complex and multi-faceted issue that is of global concern. There is no single solution and hence a many-hands approach to addressing this is needed. Such an approach benefited Haisan, a Secondary 3 student from Northbrooks Secondary School. Haisan was facing family challenges which affected him mentally and emotionally and this led him to skip school frequently. Haisan’s teachers and the school counsellor conducted home visits and referred him to the Enhanced Step-Up Programme (ESU), a programme by MSF that provides support for at-risk students. Together, the school and the youth worker from the programme helped Haisan to process and manage his social and emotional stress, helping him become more confident, emotionally stronger and resilient. Haisan has since developed positive relationships with his family, teachers and peers, and is now contributing actively in his school’s Dance CCA and Special Interest Group, Music Circle.

3. Mr Chairman, we need to recognise that the complexities of the world today means that we cannot educate our children in silos. It is when we work together with mutual trust and respect that our children benefit most.

4. Let me share a personal anecdote. When my son was in Primary school, my wife and I encouraged him in his initial interest in debate. Along the way, we had the pleasure of meeting his teachers who guided the teams, staying till late in school to train them. As parents, my wife and I would bring him out to dinner after training and competitions, or the occasional pep talk for motivation. We even celebrated losses. It was never about the winning or losing of his debates but about the process of learning and the camaraderie built with his teammates. Neither did we nor he expect this journey to span eight years of debating, but the close support from teachers, coaches and the debating community, as well as family helped him to tide the tough times and relish in ones of joy. Today, he continues to share this joy by coming back to spar with his juniors.

5. Mr Chairman, developing our children’s passions require support and commitment from parents, schools and the community. It may not be for us to say where they shall find their passion but that is something solely for them to discover.

Ms Anthea Ong:

1. Thank you, Mr Chairman. I thank Senior Parliamentary Secretary Faishal for giving me a direct response to my cut. I appreciate it. I have two clarifications, one to the Senior Parliamentary Secretary and the other to Minister Ong, please.

2. The first is that I absolutely agree about the programmes that you have started to support the psycho-social well-being of our students. May I ask how widespread is the implementation of these initiatives like Peer Support Programmes in our schools and IHLs, and what sort of results are we seeing so far?

3. The second question to Minister Ong. We all agree that there is no health without mental health. I also agree that mental health is complex and multi-faceted and, therefore, there is not one clear solution. But I wonder if a good way to start is to reframe the way we see health education in schools. Right now, we know that health education is compulsory but it is confined to physical health education. Will we be looking at mandating mental health education as part of health education requirement in schools, so that our children know from a young age that both aspects of their well-being are equally important?

Assoc Prof Dr Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim:

1. I thank the Member for the supplementary question. Indeed, we look at mental health as something that we want, to build the social and emotional competency of our children, as well as build the resilience in the programmes that they undertake. So, in essence, we start at a very early stage of their education at Primary school level whereby all these values, experiences and components where a child can develop himself or herself emotionally, socially and that resilience in all the programmes that we undertake.

2. We take on an approach of prevention, early detection and intervention. Of course, we also engage the parents along the way. Many of our schools have peer support programmes. We see the benefits of having peers looking out for one another. I for one, have come across situations whereby peers supporting each other, peers informing the educators about some of the issues faced by their own classmates, and the issues are being resolved not only by one person but together as a community.

3. So, as I have said earlier, it takes a many-hands approach whereby we want to see how we can enhance the education journey of a child, regardless of where they come from and regardless of the experience that they have, so that they continue to be socially and emotionally resilient and able to have a fulfilling and meaningful educational journey here in Singapore.

Mr Ong Ye Kung:

1. I think there is no disagreement that mental health is part of health, together with physical health. In fact, if you speak with students today, teenage students, mental health is one of the top issue of concern in their mind, I have spoken to many of them. Definitely this is something we have to look into and continue to improve. What I want to seek the understanding of Members is that, the mode of delivery does not always have to be in a curriculum, and under “lessons” and under “field talks”, taking up curriculum time. In fact, I think for mental health education to really work, it has to be delivered in a different way. Such as through peer support groups that Senior Parliamentary Secretary Muhamad Faisal talked about, and also general public education which students now receive through their social medial channels. Let us explore different ways and not always channel through the formal MOE education curriculum. I think it is more effective that way.

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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, environment — and volunteerism in Parliament.