Young people in S’pore, there’s no shame in seeking mental help

It’s okay to not be okay.

| Syahindah Ishak | Sponsored | December 22, 2021, 08:01 PM

Mental health is a prevalent issue among youths in Singapore.

One in seven people here have experienced a mental disorder, with a higher prevalence found among those aged between 18 to 34.

Yet despite the statistics, many youths are still hesitant to seek help for their mental health for a variety of reasons.

Mothership spoke to three mental health experts in Singapore to find out why these youths are not seeking the help they need, and what can be done to combat their concerns.

Natasha Fong has been a clinical psychologist with Viriya Community Services (VCS) since January 2020.

Her main area of work is to provide psychological assessments and therapy for persons with mental health conditions including depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Some 30 per cent of Fong’s cases are children and teenagers. Her youngest patient was only eight years old.

"The most common mental health issues faced by my youth clients are depression and anxiety. These tend to be associated with academic stress, bullying, and family conflicts," said Fong.

Fear of being judged or appearing weak

A number of youths in Singapore may be afraid of being judged when they seek help, believing that seeking help makes them appear weak.

This can be a reflection of social stigma against mental health that is very prevalent in our society, Fong told Mothership.

But the most important step, according to Fong, is for the individual to recognise that what he or she is going through is temporary and treatable.

"It is critical to know that there are many other people with similar experiences and help is available to support them to feel better."

Fong added that the next step would be to find a safe space, be it online or in real life, where the individual can feel open to share about their experiences.

Pearlene Ng, a senior clinical psychologist and Head of Department of Viriya Psychological Services, said she has seen more youths in Singapore coming forward to seek help over the years.

Ng has been a clinical psychologist with VCS for over two years, specialising in mood, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

About 50 per cent of her patients are children and teenagers, with her youngest patient being only five years old.

Ng told Mothership that she is seeing fewer youths subscribing to the belief that seeking help makes one appear weak.

"​​It’s important for these youths to realise that mental health difficulties are very common, and they are part of the human experience. We all have a mental health, and hence, we all can experience mental health difficulties.

The fact that we are experiencing mental health difficulties means we are normal, and it’s our body’s way of adjusting and responding to life’s difficulties. Instead of thinking we may be weak when we seek help, we can reframe this and see our act of seeking help as courageous and a sign of strength."

Financial difficulties

Besides their insecurities and fears of being discriminated against, a number of youths in Singapore are afraid to seek help due to financial difficulties.

It is a common misconception that seeking help for one’s mental health can be costly.

Lim Choon Guan, an Institute of Mental Health (IMH) senior consultant who specialises in child and adolescent psychiatry, said there are many mental health support channels for youths which are affordable.

In fact, some of them are free of charge.

Lim told Mothership that seeking help does not necessarily mean that an individual must immediately pay for counselling or medication.

For youths in particular, the first place they can go to is their family, friends, or their respective schools.

Youths can speak to family and friends about what they’re going through, or consult their school counsellors, all of whom are free of charge.

The school counsellor can then make a referral to REACH (Response, Early intervention and Assessment in Community mental Health).

REACH will subsequently assess and refer them to suitable support options.

For young persons in polytechnics, Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs), universities, or those who are working full time, they can approach CHAT (Community Health Assessment Team).

CHAT aims to provide young people aged 16 to 30 with a non-judgemental safe space to speak with a mental health professional, so as to gain clarity about their mental health concerns and give recommendations of suitable professional help based on their current needs.

CHAT also runs an online mental health assessment service via their website, called webCHAT. This is only accessible via the web browser and not through any mobile browsers.

Besides CHAT, there are social service agencies such as Care Corner, SAMH, Limitless and SHINE.

These agencies have been reaching out to the youths, providing assessment, therapeutic intervention and case management.

They are part of the Community Mental Health Masterplan developed by the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC), together with the Ministry of Health (MOH), which enables persons living with mental health and dementia to seek early treatment nearer to their homes and ensure that they are well supported in the community.

A number of other resources that youths may tap on are also available online.

These include, but are not limited to:

For people in crisis, thinking of suicide or affected by suicide, they can call the SOS helpline at 1-767. The helpline is available 24/7.

This is an interactive platform by the MOH Office for Healthcare Transformation which includes a clinically validated self-assessment tool and an AI chatbot.

This is an online platform manned by Fei Yue Community Services which offers free counselling to youths. It is available from Monday to Friday from 10am to 12pm or from 2pm to 5:30pm.

There is a helpline available for youth-related issues. It is manned by TOUCH Youth’s team of counsellors who provide cyber wellness and youth-related information or advice to both parents and youths.

This is a hotline, as well as an online chat run by Singapore Children’s Society catered to primary school children.

This is a microsite by Temasek Foundation and Agency for Integrated Care which provides resources such as locally developed mental health-related articles and online forums.

For patients who may require further assessment or treatments, Lim told Mothership that subsidies or financial assistance will be provided if an individual needs it.

For those who are concerned about longer term cost and stigma from seeking services from public healthcare or school systems, Ng and Fong shared that these individuals can turn to social service organisations like VCS.

VCS provides mental health services at four centres:

  1. Viriya Family Service Centre @ Potong Pasir
  2. Whispering Hearts Family Service Centre @ Jurong West
  3. Viriya Mental Wellness Hub @ Moulmein
  4. Viriya Therapy Centre @ Novena


Some youths are also concerned about their anonymity, especially if they do not want the people close to them to know about their problems.

Ng told Mothership: "Clients above the age of 18 do not have to inform their family members when they seek help, and mental health professionals are bound by privacy and confidentiality policies that do not allow them to disclose information about their clients, except in the event of risk."

"For therapy to be truly effective, it is important for clients to address any concerns of anonymity, fear and/ or stigma with their therapists, and work with their therapists to address these concerns in a collaborative fashion.

For those below the age of 18, parental consent is needed, but if the individual would like to remain anonymous, they may first consider seeking support through counselling hotlines or applications as a stepping stone."

Meanwhile, Fong added:

"If there are real concerns around family members finding out, we will also work together with the youth on how to engage their parents. Seeking help is an active process and it is important that they are empowered to make decisions that will support their wellbeing. Before starting therapy sessions, we will also discuss the boundaries of confidentiality and what will be helpful to share or not share with parents to ensure safety for all."

Lim told Mothership that in his many years of experience in the field, he has noticed a change in youths’ attitudes towards anonymity.

"Many of them eventually accept involvement of the family members and are more open to share what they truly feel to deal with their mental health struggles."

Seeking help is important

There are many other reasons why a youth in Singapore might be afraid to seek help for his/ her mental health, besides the ones mentioned in this article.

These reasons are justified and understandable.

But ultimately, the mental health experts Mothership spoke to agree that the insecurities, concerns, and fears these youths have in relation to seeking help can be dealt with.

Seeking help is necessary to combat one’s mental health struggles.

With a growing awareness of mental health over the years, seeking support should no longer be a taboo.

As Fong succinctly said:

"Support and help are out there. Sometimes we just need someone to journey with us, just for a while. It can make the difference."

Top image via Unsplash.

This article is sponsored by Temasek Foundation.