The COVID-19 Mental Wellness Taskforce (CoMWT), which was convened in October 2020, has completed its review of the psychosocial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the population.
2. Amongst its findings, the CoMWT has identified three key issues that require a whole-of-government (WOG) approach to address. Moving forward, the Ministry of Health (MOH) will act on the CoMWT’s recommendations and enlarge the Taskforce into an inter-agency platform to oversee the development of a national overarching mental health and well-being strategy. Named the Interagency Taskforce on Mental Health and Well-being, the platform will also coordinate interagency efforts and monitor outcomes, focusing on cross-cutting issues that require multi- and inter-agency collaboration. The new platform will be chaired by Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Health, Dr Janil Puthucheary.
3. COVID-19 has brought unprecedented shifts into our lives. The fear of infection, changes in our daily routine and social isolation brought about by safe management measures, as well as economic uncertainty, are stressors that have impacted the mental well-being of many individuals. A number of local statistics and studies have described the significant impact of COVID-19 on the mental well-being of different segments of the Singapore population.
i. Impact on General Population
4. In an in-depth study conducted by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) to assess the Singapore population’s psychological responses and mental well-being during the pandemic, about 13% of the surveyed population reported experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety in the period from May 2020 to June 2021.
ii. Impact on Youth
5. Between April and December 2020, the National Youth Council (NYC) conducted regular polls on Singaporean youths’ challenges and sentiments on COVID-19. Mental well-being was a challenge for over half of the youth population (52%) polled during the second half of 2020.
6. The top stressors cited by youth were anxiety over the future (53%), stress over finances (41%), and worries about academic or work performance (39%). These findings highlighted the importance of identifying ways to support our youth through the pandemic, such as strengthening their ability to cope with anxiety and uncertainty, promoting help-seeking behaviours and peer support efforts, and provide assurances about education prospects and career support.
iii. Impact on Older Adults
7. Based on the findings of a Singapore Life Panel study by the Singapore Management University Centre for Research on Successful Ageing (ROSA)1 which assessed the attitudes, behaviours and well-being of older Singaporeans during COVID-19, respondents reported a stark increase in feelings of isolation as the Circuit Breaker began in April 2020, with larger increases for those living alone. Research has shown that social isolation is often associated with negative mental health outcomes. It thus recommended for social and mental well-being efforts to be strengthened and more targeted at those who live alone.
iv. Increased Utilisation of Mental Health Services
8. The Institute of Mental Health (IMH) Mental Health Helpline saw 50% more callers in 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, with a peak seen in April 2020 which coincided with the start of the Circuit Breaker. Towards the end of 2020, the number of calls gradually decreased to 2019 levels, although it subsequently increased again between January and May 2021. Some of the initial concerns cited by callers included anxiety from having to adjust to working from home or home-based learning and being socially isolated, although less of such concerns were cited following June 2020. Concerns which persisted included friction with family members and concerns over job insecurity.
9. The National CARE Hotline (NCH) was launched in April 2020 to provide support to those facing mental health concerns such as anxiety and adjustment issues related to COVID-19. As of end May 2021, the hotline handled over 45,000 calls. The top three concerns cited by callers to the NCH pertained to the need of emotional support, mental health related issues and family-related or social matters.
10. Efforts by mental health teams, the community as well as agencies and organisations across various sectors to address the psychosocial impact of COVID-19 have culminated in the introduction or ramp-up of over 40 initiatives, which can be categorised into the following three broad categories:
a) Upstream initiatives to promote mental well-being and prevent the development of mental health conditions. This applies to the general population and specifically, parents and families; children and youth; workplaces and working population; and seniors.
b) Downstream initiatives to facilitate the early detection, treatment and support of those at-risk of or with mental health needs.
c) Other COVID-19 initiatives to address stressors which can impact mental well-being, e.g. SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package, COVID-19 Recovery Grant.
11. The Taskforce has also identified three key issues to address.
a) Need for Overarching Whole-of-Government Strategy: Currently, a range of agencies play different roles in the mental health and well-being landscape. We need to build an overarching strategy to guide the alignment and track progress of efforts across the different agencies.
b) Need for Better Signposting Given Wealth of Resources: There are numerous online resources on mental health and well-being and this can be confusing and overwhelming for those who are searching for information. Engagement sessions with members of the Youth Mental Well-being Network2 revealed that there are also concerns with the currency, legitimacy and credibility of the information found on these numerous online resources.
c) Better Alignment of Mental Health Training Resources and More Trained Mental Health Professionals: Multiple agencies conduct mental health training for different target groups in the community, including the general public, frontline officers, and mental health professionals. As such, there is a need to review and standardise the various training curriculum. We need to establish a common set of training standards, support the training of different providers to achieve the requisite competency levels, and ensure that the trainings achieve the intended training goals and outcomes.
i. Develop an Overarching Strategy on Mental Health and Well-being strategy
12. The Taskforce recommends the development of a National Mental Health and Well-being Strategy, which will provide overarching WOG goals and strategies to improve mental health and well-being for the population, as well as guide and align the various agencies’ individual efforts. The Government will engage the public on the development of this strategy through a public consultation to be carried out next year.
ii. Develop a One-stop Online Portal for National Mental Health Resources
13. The Health Promotion Board (HPB) is developing a national portal for mental health and well-being content which will be curated by experts and target individuals who want to find information for themselves or their loved ones. HPB has started work on this with relevant agencies to develop the one-stop portal on HealthHub. HPB is planning to roll out the pilot version of the portal in the later part of this year.
iii. Develop a National Mental Health Competency Training Framework
14. The Taskforce recommends setting up a national mental health competency framework, with a common set of training standards and clearly defined degrees of competencies expected of professionals and para-professionals who support persons with mental health conditions. The agencies which provide mental health training to community members have begun work to map out their mental health training programmes according to the proposed framework.
INTERAGENCY TASKFORCE ON MENTAL HEALTH AND WELL-BEING
15. To move beyond providing mental health support for the population from COVID-19, MOH and the Ministry of Social and Family Development have set up the new Interagency Taskforce on Mental Health and Well-being, which will oversee mental health and well-being efforts, focusing on cross-cutting issues that require interagency collaborations. The new platform will be chaired by SMS Janil Puthucheary and will include overseeing the implementation of the three recommendations from the CoMWT. This platform will also track the progress of implementation and impact of the Strategy at the national level. Please refer to Annex for the list of Taskforce members.