Mental Health is a Human Right.

Speech at European Union Delegation to Singapore Seminar: 70 Years of Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Speaking as part of the panel for Human Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Good afternoon, Ambassador Barbara Plinkett and distinguished guests. I’m honoured and so very delighted to be here to celebrate this amazing milestone of 70 years of the universal declaration of human rights. Could I please seek your indulgence and invite you to take a mental pause with me by taking three deep breaths? <PAUSE> Only we humans can do volitional or intentional breathing but we don’t do enough of it. Thank you for your trust with this experiential prelude to my sharing today: mental health is a human right that we must urgently give more attention to, and do more for, because it cross cuts all segments of our society including for persons with visible and physical disabilities, offenders, women, youth, migrant workers, refugees, LGBTQ, elderly etc.

Health and wellbeing as a human right was enshrined 70 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as ‘the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being’. The understanding of this right must follow the World Health Organization (WHO)’s definition that health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity. In other words, there is no health without mental health.

I’m not an expert in mental health, but I’m beyond vested in mental health. My deep and passionate advocacy in this issue, amongst others, through my multiple roles as a nominated Member of Parliament, social entrepreneur, leadership and life coach stems from my personal and professional experiences. My nephew was diagnosed with anxiety disorder last year at just 15, and this year with depression. He’s made several attempts to hurt himself and is currently out of the school system at this promising age of 16. A close cousin L has been on treatment for major depression and mild bipolar for years. His employment experience has been patchy because of workplace discrimination. My team mate at Hush who is Deaf struggles with deep anger issues from young because he was constantly bullied for his deafness. Another team mate in Hush, a wheelchair user, lives with psychosis and major depression after a hit-and-run accident when she was just 22 and struggles to adjust to this cruel twist of fate eight years on. The young man whom I work with at another community project called A Good Space almost jumped off from the 15th floor of a HDB flat when he was 19. Another young man sought me out after he read about me in the Straits Times because he has been depressed/suicidal and was looking for a mentor.

Then there’s my own close shave with depression 12 years ago when my world collapsed in the most colossal manner at the dizzying heights of professional and economic success.

In case you think I’m the epicentre of mental health issues, let me assure you I’m not by sharing some sobering numbers why WHO declares that we are facing a global human rights emergency in mental health:

a. Globally, one in four people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. Here in Singapore, according to a 2010 study by Institute of Mental Health, one in eight Singaporeans experience a mental health condition in their lifetime although I dare surmise this percentage might be more today.

b. Around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.

c. Two-thirds of them do not seek help or treatment because of stigma, discrimination and neglect. This number is higher in Singapore with 86.5% of those employed not seeking help.

d. There are a million suicides every year (or one in every 40 seconds). Suicide is the second leading cause of death for the youth (15–29 years old). In Singapore, an NTU survey found one in four young persons suffer from multiple depressive symptoms.

e. A study by National Council of Social Service in 2017 found that almost one in two Singaporeans are not willing to work with persons with mental health conditions and over 70% of employers agreed that negative attitudes of co-workers are major barriers to employing persons in recovery.

d. The UN Human Rights Council in its resolution 36/13 in Sep 2017 also recognised that persons with psychosocial disabilities, persons with mental health conditions and mental health users face “widespread discrimination, stigma, prejudice, violence, abuse, social exclusion and segregation, unlawful or arbitrary institutionalization, overmedicalisation and treatment practices that fail to respect their autonomy, will and preferences.”

Despite it’s obvious impact on economy and society, mental health does not enjoy the parity that physical health has in terms of policies, budgeting, medical education and practice. Currently, more than 40% of countries have no mental health policy. Two-thirds of countries spend less or just 1% of their budgets on mental health according to WHO. In Singapore, a 2011 report showed that we spend 4.14% of our total healthcare budget on mental health. Four times more than the global average but still grossly inadequate.

In ASEAN, mental health was identified as one of the health priorities under the ASEAN Post 2015 Health Development Agenda for 2016–2020. Yet mental health was not specially highlighted in the ASEAN Enabling Masterplan 2025 which was adopted at the recent ASEAN Summit to mainstream the rights of persons with disabilities.

Singapore is leading the way and is finally moving from an institutional care model to a community care approach for mental health with the launch of the 5-year Community Mental Health Masterplan in 2017. Primary care providers like polyclinics and GPs are being trained to support mental health services in non-stigmatising environments. Mental health education and promotion programmes are being introduced in schools and workplaces. A nationwide anti-mental health campaign called Beyond the Label was also launched for the first time in Sep 2018 because the social stigma surrounding mental health conditions is a major barrier to people seeking help. Many social service organisations are also given additional support to heighten their efforts. I’m also seeing more social enterprises and groundup efforts founded and started in recent times to address mental health across different segments which is a nod in the right direction that the community is coming together to be part of the solution.

Two preventive areas in mental health are of particular interest to me: youth mental health and workplace/employee wellbeing, which was why I started Hush four years ago. Hush is Singapore’s first silent teabar and a social movement where we empower the Deaf and hard of hearing to bring awareness of self-care and resilience to workplaces and schools. Employees and students learn to sign emotions that encourage inclusion and expression whilst also learning techniques to pause, reconnect with themselves and manage stress. All in silence, with a cup of tea, led by our Deaf facilitators. The other half of our team is made up of persons in recovery from mental health conditions.

In May this year, I got together with 25 other leaders in business (and some non-business) to form the Workwell Leaders Workgroup, a groundup leaders’ initiative to champion workplace and employee wellbeing as a leadership priority. We rallied 60 employers to raise awareness with events and programmes on World Mental Health Day on 10 Oct 2018, and beyond. We were so encouraged that we are now ambitiously thinking we can hold a CEO Summit on Workplace Wellbeing in 2019!

In my role as a parliamentarian, I am keen to see mental health education be made compulsory like dental health education was in the 70s and 80s as part of public health education. UK schools and state systems like New York have done so. In addition, we must update our employment laws to include psychological and social wellbeing as part of workplace health and safety, beyond just physical health and safety to push and influence employers to have psychosocial support programmes in place, as well as to look at job redesign to create more inclusive workplace and employment practices. This was my call in the speech I made in Parliament last month in response to the Employment (Amendment) Bill.

I’m grateful everyday for having come out on the bright side of that deep dark slippery slope because of the support system I have in my family and friends. Not everyone has that but everyone deserves that. Mental illness is not a personal failure, human rights are not optional or conditional. As we celebrate 70 years of declaring our commitment to protecting human rights, let’s also celebrate those one in four amongst us who live with mental health conditions and have to fight to be treated right, everyday.

Do you know someone or persons who live with mental health conditions? What can you do to honour the humanity in them?

Thank you for having me. I do hope you take that pause and breathe consciously sometimes. Be well.


Anthea Ong likes to wear hats — many of them at a go, in fact. She is a mover and shaker in the local volunteerism scene, having spearheaded several ground-up movements in service of humanity. Most notable of these initiatives is Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s first silent tea bar that employs the Deaf, as well as persons-in-recovery from and those with mental health issues, empowering them to reintegrate into society. She is passionate about educating others about social inclusion in the workplace and community, mental health and volunteerism, topics which she will be bringing to the table in her capacity as a Nominated Member of Parliament to the Republic of Singapore. It will be a tall hat she wears in this public service role. When she is not a corporate mad hatter as managing director of an international strategy consulting group for banks and financial institutions or as a life coach, Anthea can be found hugging trees, meditating in a kaftan off the cliff of some place exotic where her globe-trotting legs will take her or practising yoga with the Antarctica penguins if they would allow her.

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.