Communal safety net and caring society needed to tackle mental health issues among youths: Chan Chun Sing

27/07/2021

Following the tragic River Valley High School incident, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing delivered a ministerial statement on July 27, 2021 and committed to improve mental health issues in school with other ministries. Ultimately, he also noted that it will take a whole-of-society approach to prevent such tragedies.

We reproduce an excerpt of his speech here.

We know young people face pressures on many fronts. There are family and peer relationship issues. Some students impose high expectations on themselves; while others have parents who place high expectations on them. Some students also have difficulty coping with the rigours of our education system.

Over and above dealing with the problems of adolescence, they are all learning to cope with the pressures of a competitive, high-performing environment. Previous generations also faced their own considerable challenges, including poverty and war. But perhaps for youths growing up in today’s complex and fast paced world, their challenges are intensified by what happens online, where comparisons are incessant and unrelenting – adding yet another layer of social pressure.

This is why as a society, we must continuously improve and strengthen our support system to better prepare our children to not only withstand the pressures they face but also thrive despite these pressures. We cannot shield our children from pressure entirely; any more than we can shield them from the common challenges of adolescence.

But we must do all we can to help our children find themselves and find their footing in an intense environment.

Our approach should not only be to strengthen the overall system of support, but to engender a much more caring and nurturing environment in our society. I will share some of our support measures – from upstream prevention, to the identification of, and intervention for those at risk. I will then touch on the whole-of-society efforts we need to support our younger generation.

Mr Deputy Speaker, social emotional skills and resilience building form the foundation of MOE’s mental health efforts and have been part of our Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum for some time. This year, we began implementing the revised CCE curriculum, starting with lower secondary levels. It includes enhanced features on Mental Health Education, designed to develop our students’ mental health literacy.

For example, they learn to differentiate normal stress from distress and mental illness, so that they can seek help before becoming overwhelmed. These CCE lessons also teach them to break negative thinking patterns, overcome social emotional problems, seek help when they need to, and manage their emotions. Students are also taught how to actively stand up against stigma around mental health issues.

Peer support is another crucial pillar in our efforts. All our schools are putting in place a peer support system to encourage students to look out for one another. Our hope is for all students to learn to sit with a friend who is distressed, show empathy and care, and encourage him or her to seek help from trusted adults like parents, teachers or counsellors.

Every school has a support network for our students in need. Beyond equipping our students with the basic coping mechanisms, our teachers keep a watchful eye over their students and provide a listening ear. If they notice something amiss, teachers reach out and guide them to work on their difficulties as they are trained with basic counselling skills.

Students also have access to another group of teachers called the teacher counsellors. This is a special group of teachers who have received additional training so that they can help students who are dealing with more challenging social-emotional problems, such as grief and loss.

When students need additional support, they can see the school counsellor. School counsellors are specialised personnel who provide dedicated counselling support.

When students need further intervention and help to access resources in the community, school counsellors refer them to professionals such as those in the Response, Early intervention and Assessment in Community Mental Health (REACH) teams or social service agencies.

This support network works most effectively when the partnership with the family is strong.

New Measures to Be Taken

Mr Deputy Speaker, while much is being done, but there is always more we can, we must and we want to do.

Covid-19 has compounded the challenges our young people face. Much of their usual social support networks and routines have been disrupted, leading to prolonged periods of uncertainty, anxiety and loneliness for many.

Covid-19 safe management measures were implemented in schools so that our children can be physically in schools with their teachers and classmates for as much as possible. At the same time however, we have had to suspend many interactive and community activities – like Co-Curricular Activities (CCAs), National School Games, Cohort Camps, and Learning Journeys. These activities are avenues for our young people to build bonds, and to grow up in a balanced way, both emotionally, physically and psychologically. 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.

To this end, we want to work with parents and community groups to establish a caring and enabling society that gives greater attention to the well-being of our young.

Let me outline the measures MOE will undertake in the near term.

First, we will strengthen the support network in our schools. 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.

We also aim to deploy more than 1000 teacher-counsellors in the next few years. This is an increase from the over 700 teacher counsellors we have currently deployed in schools.

Now, all schools have at least one school counsellor, while some have two. Where feasible, we will recruit more school counsellors or re-role suitable educators, to augment the counselling support network.

For our students, we will bring 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.

We will also dedicate more time and attention to checking in on the well-being of our students regularly. Schools currently have orientation programmes for new students at the start of every school year. Henceforth, teachers will devote time at the start of every school term to check in on the well-being of their students, and guide them to know how, where and when to get help.

Next, because of the disruptions to learning caused by Covid, we will remove the Common Last Topics (CLT) from the 2021 GCE examinations. Last month, we had announced the removal of the CLT for the 2021 Primary School Leaving Examination. 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. We are especially concerned for the graduating cohorts, and so we will also remove the CLT from the 2021 GCE O-, N- and A-level examinations. While these topics would have already been taught in schools, removing them from the national examinations would help to relieve the revision load and exam stress for our students.

Finally, for the non-graduating students, given the Covid-19 disruptions, all schools will also reduce the scope for their 2021 end-of-year examinations to alleviate their revision load.

Whole-Of-Government Collaborations

Mr Deputy Speaker, the mental well-being of our young also requires strengthening the continuum of support across schools, families and our community.

We are taking a Whole-of-Government approach to address the issues. MOH and MSF have set up a new interagency Taskforce, which transited from the Covid-19 Mental Wellness Taskforce. Chaired by SMS Janil, this Taskforce brings together the capabilities and capacities of different agencies to develop an overarching national strategy and action plan on mental health and well-being. As a member of this Taskforce, MOE will work with MOH and MSF to give focus to the youth segment.

Whole-of-Society Effort is needed

Mr Deputy Speaker, 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 a tragic incident from happening again.

We need a communal safety net, underpinned by a caring and nurturing culture, for all our people, especially our youths. 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.

I’m encouraged to see that community efforts have already been gaining momentum. Since February 2020, people from all walks of life have contributed to the Youth Mental Well-being Network. They have identified gaps around them that they would like to address and are currently developing ground-up solutions to improve youth mental well-being. The projects include creating programmes to enhance emotional resilience, bringing inspirational stories of hope to our youth, and increasing parents’ emotional literacy.

Since last Monday, the public outpourings of care and support have been overwhelming. We are deeply grateful that so many people want to help ease the pain of the RV family.

At the same time, I encourage all of us to look within our own social circles and start from here. As parents, we all want what is best for our children. As they learn to navigate and face tomorrow’s challenges on their own, it’s not easy to know when to nudge them, when to stretch them, when to help them, or when to let go.

Within our own families, we can 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 handle their new challenges.

We can have more frank conversations with our 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 realise their own potential, developing their own strengths and ultimately be confident with themselves.

Success cannot, should not and must not be the constant need to be compared with someone else and having to live up to someone 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. 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.

Mr Deputy Speaker, we can all help our children learn the right behaviour in the online and offline worlds. Do our actions and choice of words build people up or tear people down? As adults, let us set the right tone and example.

Let us work together to 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 pressures or how intense the competition may be.

To this end, MOE wants to strengthen our partnership with parents through the Parent Support Groups in all our schools. We hope that our 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 need more support. I will encourage every Parent Support Group to form a sub-group, focusing on the mental well-being of children and families.

To the students and teachers who visited our CARE post at River Valley High School, it took courage to step forward and seek help, and I encourage you to continue doing so. To those who are struggling, I want you to know that we are here for you. Reach out. Let us know if you need help.

I appeal to everyone not to stigmatise those who come forward to seek help – be they students, staff or families. Reaching out for help is a sign of strength, 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.

Cover photo credit: MCI’s YouTube page