Mental Healthcare in Schools

Budget 2020, Committe of Supply Debates, Ministry of Education, 3 March 2020

Sir, first I want to thank our school counsellors for their role in supporting our students despite their small numbers. Based on the data provided to a PQ on counsellors, I estimate the counsellor-student ratio to be approximately 1:800[1] which seem to pale in comparison to some OECD education systems [2]. Is the Ministry planning to improve this ratio to better provide first-line mental health support to students?

MOE currently deploys part-time MOE-trained school counsellors, para-counsellors, Flexi-Adjunct School Counsellors, and Teacher Counsellors to augment school counsellors. Could the Ministry clarify on the choice behind deploying these staff instead of directly increasing the number of school counsellors?

35% of respondents from the public consultation on mental health that my team and I did mentioned quality in school counselling as a key concern. One respondent shared that her experience with school counsellors has not been helpful. (I quote) “One completely dismissed me when I told her about my symptoms, and another one recommended exercise as a form of weight loss to someone with an eating disorder.” [3]

Teachers must have relevant subject matter expertise before attending teaching training at NIE. However, I understand that applicants for school counsellors on the “Applicants Without Counselling Training” track need only hold a university degree. Would the Ministry consider giving the same value and rigour to the role of counsellors by ensuring that all candidates have appropriate competencies, experience and/or professional qualifications before attending the necessary school-specific training? Could the Ministry also share how it assesses the competency of school counsellors, and how this is aligned with national competency assessment frameworks for counselling professionals?

Despite a general consensus that early detection leads to better health outcomes; and the need for regular assessment of students’ needs and health called by the Health Promoting Schools Framework, free health screenings for students currently focus exclusively on physical health.

Yet, according to WHO, half of mental health illnesses start by 14 years of age. MOH reported that studies in Singapore suggest depression alone affects up 18% of youths. Moreover, WHO has found that late detection of mental health conditions is known to result in “increased morbidity, mortality and the adoption of life-threatening and life-adopting self-treatments”. As currently practised in schools like Yale-NUS College on admission, will the Ministry consider putting in place mental health screenings every year? In a whole-child approach, there is no health without mental health. The screenings are not meant to be diagnostic in purpose, but to increase the channels where teachers, counsellors and parents can identify students who need more help to adopt upstream, preventive measures. I believe this mental health check will better support the engagement and feedback process between teachers, counsellors and parents.

[1] In 2018, MOE reported that a total enrolment of 428773 and 176511 students in 356 schools and 17 IHLs respectively (with the universities: NUS, NTU, SMU, SIT, SUSS, SUTD; NIE; polytechnics: S’pore, Ngee Ann, Temasek, Nanyang, Republic; Lasalle; NAFA; ITE East, ITE West; ITE Central.). Ratio is calculated on the assumption that each school and IHL has at least 2 and 3 counsellors respectively,. This brings the total number of counsellors to be 763, and the ratio of counsellors:student to be 1:793.2.

[2] In Ireland, it is mandated that there is 1 counsellor for every 500 students. In the US, the counsellor-student ratio in 2014 to 2015 was 1:482. In Israel, this ratio is 1:570; for Thailand, this ratio is 1:500; for Finland, this ratio is 1:245; it has been mandated in Cyprus that there should be 1 counsellor for every 60 students.

[3] SG Mental Health Matters Public Consultation — Respondent #242

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~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