31 MPs spoke on improving mental health in S'pore, urging for a national effort. Here's what they said.

In case you missed it.

Khine Zin Htet | February 09, 2024, 09:36 AM



The importance of mental health and advancing the mental well-being of Singaporeans was discussed in parliament on Feb. 6 and Feb. 7, 2024.

This followed a motion put forth by Members of Parliament (MPs) Wan Rizal, Edward Chia Bing Hui, Mariam Jaafar, Tan Wu Meng, and Yip Hon Weng.

The motion called for Parliament to recognise the importance of mental health as a health, social and economic issue, affirm the importance of a robust national mental health ecosystem and call for a "whole-of-Singapore effort" to implement a national strategy to enhance mental health and well-being.

31 parliamentarians spoke about the motion, which was unanimously passed after a two-day debate lasting more than nine hours.

Let's have more mental health screenings for everyone

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People's Action Party (PAP) MP Wan Rizal Wan Zakariah filed the motion to advance mental health together with other PAP MPs from the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health — Edward Chia Bing Hui, Mariam Jaafar, Tan Wu Meng, and Yip Hon Weng.

Wan Rizal said recent statistics show the escalation of mental health issues globally — including in Singapore.

"The 2022 national population health survey revealed a concerning rise in mental health issues among Singaporeans," he said. "Notably, one in four young people face mental health challenges as compared to one in five in 2020."

He also shared his personal experience of his wife going through postnatal depression, saying it wasn't easy for him and his children, too.

Wan Rizal said mental health is essential, noting that it influences people's capacities to learn, work, and forge meaningful relationships.

He reiterated the need to treat mental health screenings as importantly as physical health screenings.

Mental health screenings can also offer insights into mental well-being and pave the way for informed steps towards improvement, he said.

He proposed a “Buy One Get One Free concept”, where every physical health screening would come with a free mental health checkup.

Let's all improve everyone's mental health together

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Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said the National Mental Health and Wellbeing strategy was launched in October 2023, which sets out concrete plans to plug existing gaps and strengthen Singapore's mental health ecosystem.

"We will now translate these plans into action," he said. "Our plans are not static. We will continue to evolve and update them."

"So let there be no doubt the government is making mental health and well-being a key priority in our national agenda."

"Together, hand in hand, let us improve the mental health and well-being of all Singaporeans."

Let's have a better workplace

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PAP MP Edward Chia touched on strengthening mental wellness at the workplace.

Noting that most adult Singaporeans spend most of their time at the workplace, he said that better support at the workplace would "make a significant difference to the overall wellness of society and create positive ripple effects for other segments of the community".

He called for more investment in mental health resources at the workplace so that employees can "thrive in the workplace, not just survive".

Let's be mentally well, not just not unwell

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WP MP He Ting Ru called for a more holistic and well-rounded approach to mental health — looking beyond lifting people out of situations of poor mental health.

She also quoted the Constitution of the World Health Organisation:

"Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."

Rather than decreasing the rates of poor mental health, she said that more needs to be done to elevate mental well-being.

She suggested a strength-based approach in which individuals are taught to recognise their strengths and use their "unique strengths as a solid foundation to build a future path forward. "

Let's destigmatise mental health in the insurance industry

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PAP MP Tan Wu Meng talked about the stigma from insurance companies against those with mental health conditions.

He highlighted the concerns of some Singaporeans who are worried about being denied insurance coverage after being diagnosed with a mental health condition.

"So I call upon this government to get MAS (Monetary Authority of Singapore) on board, look at improvement and reforms to the insurance sector, especially for young Singaporeans who may be facing mental health and mental wellness concerns," he said.

Let's monitor students' well-being regularly

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PSP Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Hazel Poa said it is important to implement measures more regularly and systematically to monitor students' well-being.

She pointed to the recent murder in River Valley High School, a case which shocked the whole nation — where it was revealed that the perpetrator had a major depressive disorder.

"Conducting a mental health assessment each year using developed tools will help us identify students who need help and proactively reach out to them so that we can prevent such a tragic incident from happening again," she said.

Let's take care of seniors' well-being

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PAP MP Yip Hon Weng focused on the mental well-being of seniors in Singapore.

As Singapore is a "high-stress, high-cost living environment", he said that this sets the stage for concerns like social isolation, loneliness, and dementia among seniors.

He said a "more targeted approach" is required to effectively engage seniors, as their populace is diverse and the experiences of seniors in different age groups differ.

Let's have a better framework for clinical psychologists

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NMP Syed Harun Alhabsyi highlighted the need for more psychiatrists to support increasing mental health demand.

He also asked the government to consider the feasibility of a regulatory framework for clinical psychologists, noting that the skillsets required in the delivery of mental healthcare and clinical services are distinct from those required in other branches of psychology.

Let's incentivise companies to make the workplace better

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NMP Mark Lee shared the tragic passing of his colleague in 2021, who had been "battling a private challenge" unbeknownst to her colleagues.

Her passing has prompted the company to take proactive steps to strengthen the community within the company, he said.

Lee suggested looking into ways to engage and incentivize more companies to tool and support the implementation of suggested interventions to address specific workplace stressors.

Let's make the society better

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PAP MP Mariam Jaafar shared the story of C, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 14.

Despite support from his mother and seeking help at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), his condition persisted and deteriorated.

Stresses in his life, exacerbated by the struggles of getting his colleagues and in-laws to understand his condition, eventually led to him turning to drugs.

"He wanted to stop but when he sought help, the IMH (Institute of Mental Health) hotline told him to get help from NAMS (National Addictions Management Service) for addiction, and NAMS told him they couldn’t help him on his addiction because of his bipolar condition," she said.

One day, he was found dead by suicide after sending messages of his turmoil to his mother.

Jaafar called for more to be done to drive societal change in being more aware and accepting of people with mental health challenges.

"No amount of government interventions with new structures, new care models, new resources, new legislations will work if we don’t as a society transform," she said.

Let's recognise art therapy

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NMP Usha Chandradas spoke about the importance of art-related therapies in alleviating mental health conditions.

She urged the government to consider engaging with the arts therapies communities to assist them in implementing "some kind of formal accreditation and regulation system".

"I've been told anecdotally by art therapy practitioners that there can be unethical or uninformed use of art therapy by untrained persons who may design programs and art-based interventions intended for vulnerable populations," she said.

Acknowledging that regulation may not be a "straightforward exercise", she asked for further professional development and support for the field of arts therapies and arts-related wellness to minimise potential harm caused to vulnerable patients.

Let's support those who take care of others' mental well-being

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PAP MP Ng Ling Ling called for more caregiver support for those looking after individuals afflicted with mental illnesses.

She said these caregivers can be "bewildered and confused [about] what is the best course of support" for their loved ones, adding that they can be parents, spouses, or even children.

She proposed for the government to enable more research and develop strategies to address the unique needs of caregivers.

Let's have the right to end work after working hours

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PAP MP Melvin Yong Yik Chye spoke about the need for workers to have a "right to disconnect" — "one that is contextualised to the realities of our global workforce, and one that will help ensure employees have protected time to rest and to recharge".

He called to normalise a workplace culture where staff are not obligated to respond to emails or work messages sent after hours.

The lack of adequate downtime can lead to job burnout, decreased job satisfaction and reduced productivity, Yong said.

Let's support freelance caregivers too

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NMP See Jinli Jean highlighted the need for an "inclusive, enlightened and supportive ecosystem" for freelancers like private hire drivers and delivery riders with caregiving responsibilities.

She asked for service buyers and platform operators to give leeway in service delivery or incentive framework if the freelancer or platform worker has caregiving emergencies.

"Freelancers who are caregivers should be uplifted and supported with the same degree of accommodation and care as what we seek for employees with caregiving responsibilities," she said.

Let's incentivise companies to hire people recovering from mental health illnesses

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NMP Keith Chua acknowledged the employers who have provided employment opportunities for persons in recovery from mental health issues.

"You have made invaluable contributions to helping so many reintegrate and recover," he said.

Recognising the cost of providing these opportunities, Lee asked to consider schemes where employers can be provided with credits for employing persons in recovery.

This could be by expanding the Enabling Employment Credit (EEC) in place for persons with disabilities to include persons with mental health conditions, he said.

Let's lower the age of consent for mental health services to 18

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PAP MP Rachel Ong urged to lower the age of consent for mental health services to 18 years old, including interventions requiring medications.

She said that requiring parents' consent, whether at age 18 or 21, discourages many youths from seeking help.

This is because some may fear their parents being unsupportive or fear disappointing their parents, Ong said.

Some parents may also decline medication for their children because of stigma.

"If our young people are deemed responsible enough to drive as well as bear arms in National Service at the age of 18, they should not be held back from assessing mental health services and taking ownership of their mental well-being," she said.

Let's not neglect mental health risks of people with disabilities

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NMP Ong Hua Han talked about including a dedicated approach to identify and look after the mental health of more vulnerable residents like those with disabilities.

"We must not neglect the mental health risk that comes with feelings of limitation, lack of agency or loneliness," Ong said.

He explained that it is common for mental health conditions, like depression, to accompany those who acquire a disability later in life as they have to adjust to a new reality.

Noting the "unpredictability of life", he said that we cannot discount the possibility that any one of us could acquire disabilities or significant mental health challenges in future as we age.

He asked the government to consider this when implementing the mental health strategy.

Let's make mental health coverage more affordable and accessible

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PAP MP Nadia Ahmad Samdin Pap spoke on promoting affordable and accessible mental health coverage.

The Ministry of Health shared in 2023 that the median waiting time for a new subsidised appointment was 45 days to see a psychiatrist and 42 days to see a psychologist, she said.

"Long-term dedicated care and medication can cost patients hundreds or even over S$1,000 per visit," she said.

She highlighted the government's role in shaping the insurance market to promote affordable and accessible mental health coverage, as well as general health and hospitalization coverage.

Let's address all factors that increase vulnerability

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NMP Razwana Begum Abdul Rahim said that the whole-of-government approach to strengthening mental health and well-being is a positive approach.

However, she said that it is also important for the government to work closely with the private and community sectors and people of all ages, backgrounds and capabilities.

She cautioned against introducing more services and stressed the need to acknowledge and address existing and emerging factors that increase vulnerability and impede positive mental health and well-being.

Let's understand that it's okay to struggle mentally

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PAP MP Xie Yao Quan shared his recent struggles with burnout, saying that he detected the signs early and took steps to care for himself.

Saying that he is now feeling better and well enough to speak in parliament, he called attention to normalising people's struggles and challenges.

"It is about shining a light on these common experiences, deeply personal but actually common experiences, because they should not remain in the shadows of our minds and souls, and we should chase the shadows away," he said.

He said that rather than policy interventions and legislation, it would take the whole of society for everyone to talk about their mental health struggles openly.

Let's understand the difference between mental well-being & disorders

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PAP MP Darryl David spoke on the general lack of understanding of what constitutes mental health.

This could have led to a conflation between mental health and mental disorders, he said.

He explained that mental health refers to a state of psycho-emotional well-being, where individuals can cope with normal daily stresses and lead fruitful, productive, and fulfilling lives.

Mental disorder, he said, refers to diagnosable mental conditions that affect the way people think, behave, function, and interact with others.

"A better understanding of the differences between them could possibly be a game changer that might help to destigmatize the conversation around mental health," he added.

He also said that it is important to identify symptoms of poor mental health early and provide targeted interventions before mental health challenges lead to progressive mental disorders.

Let's take care of the mental health of mothers

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Drawing on her own experiences, PAP MP Hany Soh highlighted the importance of recognising every mother's mental well-being during and after pregnancy.

She shared that most of her stresses, like the guilt of not being able to produce enough for her baby through breastfeeding, stemmed from social stigmas and expectations placed on mothers.

She suggested ensuring that all hospitals in Singapore, public and private, that provide obstetrics and gynaecology services are uniformly equipped with the relevant capabilities and resources to provide early detection and timely intervention to parents who require psychological support.

Let's have more support for senior caregivers

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PAP MP Sharael Taha spoke about supporting senior caregivers and seniors staying alone.

He shared a story of a 70-year-old resident who has to take care of her bedridden mother with dementia.

"She shared with me how difficult it was to be caring for her own mother when she herself was getting older. But she said with a smile, 'As hard as it is, it is my duty as she is my mother," he said.

He pointed out that caregivers can experience tremendous stress, which can be exacerbated if they are experiencing their own challenges.

He asked for more support for such individuals.

Let's encourage everyone to take part in mental wellness activities

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PAP MP Carrie Tan said that mental health could be taken care of by the individual personally until it deteriorates to a point where clinical assistance is necessary.

She urged the government to equip individuals and encourage various "personal-based" activities to help Singaporeans access knowledge and maintain their mental well-being.

Such activities include yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices, she said.

She recommended extending SkillsFuture funding for such learning to "accelerate and propagate emotional wellness skills more widely so that everyone can equip themselves to maintain good mental health as a lifelong endeavour".

Let's have assistance programs to help all employees

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PAP MP Vikram Nair noted the high rate of suicides among working adults compared to other age groups and recommended strategies for workplaces to help employees cope with mental health challenges.

He pointed to employee assistance programs (EAP), where employees can seek assistance for mental health issues on a confidential basis, provided by other countries.

He asked the government to consider whether such programs can be made more widely available in Singapore through legislation or the tripartite framework.

Let's embrace mental wellness in the heartlands

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PAP MP Yeo Wan Ling spoke on localised efforts to complement initiatives on mental health.

She said that more awareness and specialized training can be given to the community to raise awareness of mental health illnesses.

Another effort she suggested was to encourage heartland merchants to embrace flexible work arrangements, especially for caregivers.

Let's have more mental health specialists

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PAP MP Shawn Huang said that more help is needed in the form of specialists with great skills to manage cases of mental health illness.

He said better coordination and targeted resourcing are needed, pointing out that mental healthcare workers and psychiatrists are strained with their workload in Singapore.

"It is not uncommon to wait for two to three months for a diagnosis while the child continues to lose time in school, stacking on the challenges further," he explained.

Let's have more support from the government

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In response to the suggestion to change the age limit required for parental consent on mental health services, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Health Rahayu Mahzam shared several considerations that the Ministry of Health is reviewing.

"These include balancing the need for youths' access to appropriate treatment, the involvement of the family and social support in youths' care journey, and protection of the youths in view of the risks associated with treatments and the level of maturity and understanding of the child," she said.

As for doing more to support seniors who have mental health needs, she said that seniors are supported by the community outreach teams to identify their mental health needs.

The teams also provide basic emotional support and referrals to appropriate service providers, she added.

She thanked the members who raised the motion:

"It has given us the opportunity to highlight the mental health efforts that we have developed and implemented through the years as well as your various feedback and suggestions on how we can do more."

"The government is committed to continue working with the healthcare classes and community partners to develop and review strategies to uplift the mental health of our nation," she said.

Let's destigmatise mental health

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Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development Eric Chia said that "beyond plans, policies and programs", "a further shift in mindsets surrounding mental health and people with mental health conditions" is needed.

"With the help of members of this chamber from both sides of the aisle and beyond. I have every confidence that Singapore can be a paragon where the stigma surrounding mental health is a thing of the past and where help-seeking is well facilitated," he said.

Let's build a more inclusive society

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Minister of State for Manpower Gan Siow Huang said that employees should be treated fairly and based on merit, even if they have chosen to disclose their mental health conditions.

She added that the government is committed to working with employers to strengthen support for employees' mental well-being and encouraged employers to tap into available resources.

She also addressed employees:

"Let's strive to show kindness, support and understanding to those around us. And to those of you recovering from mental health conditions and other vulnerable groups seeking employment — you are not alone. We will support you in the pursuit of meaningful employment. Together, we can build a more inclusive society."

Let's not stop trying to make everyone's mental health well

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Minister of State for Health Janil Puthucheary said that the government will continue to study issues highlighted by the parliamentary members — "whether it is about the regulation of some professionals, issues to do with how insurance is made available, issues to do with stigma and access".

There is a need for continued work in this space, he added.

"The collective dedication and commitment of our government agencies and the whole of our society are instrumental in driving positive change and fostering better mental health for all," he said.

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