A Woodlands resident tragically lost her elder son through suicide. He had bipolar disorder and felt like a burden to the family. His wife had divorced him, he lost his job, and he was addicted to methamphetamine.
The woman had a second son who suffered from depression. She also had an ageing mother with dementia. She worked multiple jobs to support them while divorced from her husband who also had bipolar disorder. Not once did anyone ask the woman, a caregiver, how she was coping. MP for Sembawang GRC Mariam Jaafar recounted this story in Parliament on Feb 6.
“These stories can be hard to hear. But they are real, and they point to the scale and complexity of the challenge,” she added.
The mental struggles that many Singaporeans face, like the story above, motivated five People’s Action Party MPs – Dr Wan Rizal (Jalan Besar GRC), Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC), Yip Hon Weng (Yio Chu Kang SMC), Ms Mariam, and Edward Chia (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) – to table a motion on advancing mental health. They proposed a nationwide effort to improve mental health and wellbeing across Singapore. Dr Wan, Dr Tan, Mr Yip and Ms Mariam are members of the Health Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC).
The GPC aimed to build on the newly introduced national plan to “refine the strategy constructively, aligning with global best practices whilst tailoring suggestions to our unique societal context”, Dr Wan Rizal said when he moved the mental health motion.
In October last year, the Government launched the National Mental Health and Well-being Strategy, which will build the country’s mental health ecosystem to offer accessible clinical care to people who need it.
During the debate, PAP MPs proposed recommendations to create a mental health-inclusive society where every Singaporean will be supported. These include making mental health services more accessible and affordable, promoting mental health and well-being, and improving workplace mental health.
Increasing accessibility and affordability of mental health services: PAP MPs
PAP MPs, including Dr Tan, Rachel Ong (West Coast GRC), Nadia Ahmad Samdin (Ang Mo Kio GRC), Xie Yao Quan (Jurong GRC) and Ng Ling Ling (Ang Mo Kio GRC), have raised concerns about the government’s crucial role in promoting affordable and accessible mental health coverage.
Dr Tan urged the Monetary Authority of Singapore to reform the insurance sector such that individuals with mental health conditions can get physical health coverage at an appropriately priced higher premium.
Ms Ong astutely pointed out that the coverage gap poses a significant barrier to adults seeking help, particularly those who cannot afford treatment without the support of insurance.
Ms Nadia said that underwriting coverage for mental illnesses is complex, and a clear regulatory framework is essential.
“The government can work with regulatory bodies to streamline the approval process for insurers introducing innovative and targeted mental health coverage, fostering an environment conducive to product innovation,” she added.
Apart from private insurance providers, Mr Xie said that Singapore’s universal national healthcare insurance MediShield should cover mental health conditions.
Ms Ng also asked if the government would further help with medication cost and referrals for counselling therapy in primary and community care settings.
Targeted approach to support seniors
With Singapore moving towards a super-aged society, Mr Yip proposed a more targeted approach to categorise seniors into segments for effective intervention, including the active and well, the potentially at risk and inactive. He added that the country must continue to empower seniors through digital tools and technology. It is imperative to harness technology to create interest groups and leverage existing digital social networks.
Ms Nadia called on the government to encourage research in elderly mental health as there are few community organisations or ground-up groups which focus on supporting the mental health needs of seniors.
Need to strengthen support for caregivers
Ms Ng and Sharael Taha (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) also highlighted the need to strengthen support for caregivers.
Ms Ng asked if the Government can better address the unique needs of caregivers dealing with loved ones with recurring or chronic mental illnesses, such as providing respite care services and counselling support for these caregivers.
Community support is another area that PAP MPs highlighted.
Mr Sharael called on the community to provide support to senior caregivers. “Caregivers undergo an immense amount of stress. What more when the caregivers are themselves dealing with their own challenges brought about by ageing.”
Hany Soh (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) also believed that as a community, Singaporeans should band together to do their part to increase awareness of postpartum depression and provide peer support to ease the anxieties of newborn mothers.
Supporting children and youths
On supporting children and youths, Ms Mariam proposed taking a population health approach that addresses health inequalities and social determinants to improve the mental health of youths and ensures the strategy is inclusive. Separately, schools could be more accommodative to students’ mental health needs, including at critical transition points; and there should be more consistency in how schools meet these needs, she added.
On the strategy of using a toolbox to support parents in managing their children’s mental health, Dr Wan said such a toolbox must be complemented with workshops and interactive sessions to improve mental health literacy.
Ms Ong also urged the Government to lower the age of consent for mental health services to 18 years old, including interventions requiring medication. She also suggested incorporating mental health checkups in schools.
Empowering employers to strengthen mental wellness at the workplace
On improving workplace mental health, Mr Chia called for more support for employers to set the tone for employees in the organisation to contribute to systemic improvements in workplace mental health. These include harmonising existing measurement tools to get a fuller understanding of employees and scaling up champions networks to share best practices.
“Our enterprises are agents of social change… Let us partner with our enterprises to make mental wellness a cornerstone of our economic and social strategy. That way, every Singaporean can maximise their potential and derive purpose and meaning in their endeavours,” he added.
Melvin Yong (Radin Mas SMC) reiterated the need for workers to have a right to disconnect – an idea that he first mooted in Parliament in 2020 – to prevent workplace burnout. He also proposed training and deploying workplace mental wellness ambassadors to help identify mental health challenges.
Source of feature image: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.