In Parliament on Tuesday (Jul. 27), Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing addressed the River Valley High School incident, in which a 13-year-old student died.
In his ministerial statement, Chan recognised the courage of the students and teachers at River Valley High School for seeking help in the aftermath of the incident, and encouraged them to continue to do so.
"To those who are struggling still, I want you to know that we are here for you," he said. "Reach out. Let us know if you need help, and we will do what we can to support you."
He also appealed to the public to not stigmatise the students, staff, and families who are seeking help:
"Reaching out for help is a sign of strength, and not weakness. Let this incident motivate all of us to take down our barriers and treat struggling individuals who step forward with care and compassion."
Chan also further addressed the issue of mental health support in schools, and laid out new measures that the Ministry of Education will be implementing to further support students' well-being.
Impact of Covid-19 on mental health
Chan acknowledged the impact that Covid-19 has had on young people, due to disruptions to their social and support networks and routines, which can lead to "prolonged periods of uncertainty, anxiety and loneliness for many".
Many interactive and community activities — such as Co-Curricular Activities (CCAs), National School Games, Cohort Camps, and Learning Journeys — have been suspended, and Chan said that MOE hopes to restart them as soon as possible given the Covid-19 situation:
"These activities are avenues for our young people to build bonds, and to grow emotionally and holistically. We plan to reinstate such activities in full as soon as the Covid-19 situation allows for it."
"We want to create more time and space for students to pursue experiences that broaden their emotional and psychological horizons and strengthen their resilience."
New measures to support students' well-being
"While much is being done, there is always more we can, we must, and we want to do," Chan said.
He outlined existing support available for students, such as the recent inclusion of Mental Health Education as part of the Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum, and peer support networks in schools.
"To this end," he said, "we want to work with parents and community groups to establish a caring and enabling society that gives even greater attention to the well-being of our young."
He laid out several measures that MOE will be implementing in the future.
More support in schools
First, all teachers will receive enhanced professional development on mental health literacy, as a baseline. "This will further strengthen our ability to identify and support students in need," Chan said.
In addition, Chan stated, MOE plans to deploy more than 1,000 teacher-counsellors in the next few years. Teacher counsellors are a special group of teachers who receive additional training, in order to help students dealing with more challenging social-emotional problems, such as grief and loss.
There are currently over 700 teacher-counsellors deployed in schools, Chan said.
In addition, MOE will recruit more school counsellors, or re-role suitable educators, in order to strengthen the counselling support network in schools. School counsellors are specialised personnel who provided dedicated counselling support, Chan explained.
Currently, all schools have at least one school counsellor and some have two.
MOE will also dedicate more time and attention toward checking in regularly on the well-being of students.
From now on, teachers will devote time at the start of each school term to check in on their students' well-being, and guide them on how, where, and when they can get help.
Bring back CCAs for secondary schools and pre-universities
Chan also said that MOE will be bringing back CCAs for secondary schools and pre-universities within the next few weeks, as more students complete their vaccinations.
"We are currently putting our plans together on how CCA can be conducted safely within national safe management measures," he said.
Examination adjustments due to Covid-19
Chan also announced that due to disruptions to learning caused by Covid-19, MOE will remove the Common Last Topics (CLT) from the 2021 GCE O-, N-, and A-Level examinations.
In June, MOE had announced that CLT would be removed for the 2021 Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).
"The Delta variant of the Covid virus has created much greater disruptions than envisaged and has affected the social and emotional well-being of our students.
[...] While these [CLT] topics would have already been taught in schools, removing them from the national exams would help to relieve the revision load and exam stress for our students."
In addition, all schools will reduce the scope of their 2021 end-of-year examinations, to alleviate the revision load for non-graduating students.
Need a "communal safety net"
Support systems outside of schools must also be strengthened, Chan said:
"Our students are also influenced by factors in and beyond school. This tragic incident could have happened outside of school as well.
We will therefore need a whole-of-society effort to keep our children, families and community safe to avoid such tragic incidents from happening again."
He added that Singapore needs a "communal safety net, underpinned by a caring and nurturing culture" for everyone, and youths in particular.
"So that collectively, we send them the unequivocal message that no one will ever be alone. And no one needs to be going through life’s toughest moments alone."
He stated that the government has taken a Whole-Of-Government approach.
MOE will work with the Ministry of Health (MOH) and Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) on a new interagency Taskforce meant to "[bring] together the capabilities and capacities of different agencies to develop an overarching national strategy and action plan on mental health and well-being."
The taskforce is chaired by Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information, and Health.
"As a member of this Taskforce, MOE will work with MOH and MSF to give focus to the youth segment," Chan said.
He added that he is encouraged to see community efforts gaining momentum, such as the Youth Mental Well-being Network.
Start within our own social circles
Chan also emphasised the need for people to start within their own social circles.
"Within our own families, we can all spend more time listening to our children’s thoughts and feelings.
Let them share with us what they find stressful. Give them the space to process their emotions. Let us walk alongside them as they grow and learn to handle their new challenges."
Chan recognised the pressures that students face, including family and peer relationship issues, as well as high expectations placed upon them by themselves or by parents.
He added that some students also have difficulty coping with rigours of Singapore's education system.
He suggested that parents can have more frank conversations with their children and families on the definition of "success".
"As a parent myself, I have come to realise that success must be defined by helping my children to realise their own potential, develop their own strengths, and ultimately be confident in themselves.
Success cannot, should not and must not be the constant need to be compared with someone else and having to live up to somebody else’s image."
"The greatest gift that we can give to our children is to accept and love them unconditionally and help them be at ease with who they are," he said.
"As parents, the greatest assurance that we can give our children is to affirm them and give them the confidence to find their own way."
Break the vicious cycles of negativity
The challenges faced by young people today are also intensified by online happenings, Chan said, "where comparisons are incessant and unrelenting".
Chan encouraged adults to exemplify the right behaviour for children, both online and offline.
"Let us break the vicious cycles of negativity by standing up for others and responding with grace and compassion. We can stop toxic conversations online, and amplify messages of strength, care and positivity through our online networks instead."
"All of us can be kind to each other. All of us can look out for one another, no matter how tough the competition might be or how intense the pressure can be," he added.
Chan said that MOE wants to strengthen its partnership with parents through schools' parent support groups, and encouraged every parent support group to form a sub-group focused on the mental well-being of children and families.
"We hope that Parent Support Groups will not only support the school, but also expand their role to connect with one another and render help to parents whose children and families may need more support."
If you or someone you know are in mental distress, here are some hotlines you can call to seek help, advice, or just a listening ear:
Samaritans Of Singapore (SOS) 24-hour Hotline: 1800-221-4444
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
Institute of Mental Health: 6389-2222 (24 hours)
Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788 (for primary school-aged children)
Top photos via MCI and Facebook / Chan Chun Sing.