Associate Professor Angie Chew, CEO and Mindfulness Principal, Brahm Centre,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
1. Good morning. Thank you for inviting me to join you today at the Asia-Pacific Mindfulness Conference, jointly organised by Brahm Centre with many local and international partners .
Impact of COVID-19 on mental health and our response
2. The COVID-19 pandemic has had an extraordinary impact, including on our mental health, a mental health stress test for our society. What I hope to touch on in my speech today, is the extraordinary mental care response that we have seen, from formal care providers to members of the community. The pandemic has been with us for over a year. As a result, many people face severe disruption to their lives and livelihoods. The impacts include social isolation, economic uncertainty, and loss of income. These have contributed to an increase in anxiety and distress among our population. All these underscore the wide-ranging impact of the pandemic on our society.
3. What has been our response? I would like to highlight several things. One example, during this time, we set up the National CARE Hotline, providing psychological first aid and emotional support to the public. The hotline, designed to address anxiety and adjustment issues related to the pandemic, since its launch in April 2020, received over 45,000 calls. Another example, we set up the COVID-19 Mental Wellness Taskforce in October 2020, to coordinate and integrate agency responses to tackle the psychosocial impact of the pandemic on the population, and also to make sure that we learn the right lessons about our mental health ecosystem, to take them forward as we think about this very important aspect of care.
4. Many of our public sector agencies have responded with several initiatives to help Singaporeans through these difficult times. For example, the Health Promotion Board (HPB) and Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth launched a new campaign called “Brave the New”, encouraging Singaporeans to take proactive steps to support their own and others’ mental well-being. As part of this, HPB rolled out the Hi!JustCheckingIn initiative. HPB concentrates on public health education and public health outreach, putting this as part of their efforts to highlight the importance of mental well-being. The Hi!JustCheckingIn initiative, launched in January this year, focused on equipping Singaporeans with skillsets to provide emotional support to others. Another example, the Ministry of Health (MOH) Office for Healthcare Transformation rolled out the online platform mindline.sg, for individuals to understand their own state of emotional well-being using a clinically validated self-assessment tool. We have also provided mental health resources and self-help tools on the website.
Improving access to community mental health services
5. We have also been increasing the capacity of community mental health services under the Community Mental Health Masterplan. As of last year, we had over 220 GP partners and 14 public health primary care polyclinics providing mental health and/or dementia services across our country. We have worked with the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC) to set up 50 community outreach teams in partnership with Social Service Agencies (SSAs), who are often part of the Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs) who have contributed to care in our community as well, reaching out to hundreds and thousands of persons with mental health or dementia needs. And we have set up allied health-led community intervention teams, 21 so far, established to provide mental health interventions such as psycho-social therapeutic interventions and counselling for persons with mental health needs in their homes. An extraordinary mental health challenge, an extraordinary stress test on our mental wellbeing, I believe is complemented with an extraordinary response from our professionals as well as our community.
6. Notwithstanding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing care, not just COVID-19 care, but ongoing care for health and mental health have had to continue to be made available with added precautionary measures to minimise the risk of transmission. These teams, whether professional or from the community, voluntary or trained, have had to be conducted by all kinds of means, including telephone consultations, changing the size of group activities in order to support everyone’s mental well-being. Zoom, and online platforms like this have been used quite a lot as well. I would like to express my deepest appreciation to all our partners (community, clinical, professional, voluntary) who have soldiered on despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic.
7. This pandemic has indeed been a stress test for Singapore’s mental health and healthcare system, and I am heartened by the significant efforts taken by all our partners in the community and our mental health system to address the psychological impact of the pandemic. This pandemic will continue to pose a challenge to the mental well-being and health of our population, since its impact is likely to last for some years to come. The light is at the end of the tunnel, because of the increasing adoption of vaccination and control of cases in Singapore, the number of fatality cases are under control. But this is going to extend for some years. The challenge will be there, both in terms of health and healthcare, but also in terms of the economic impact, which will then have a knock-on effect in terms of our well-being. So, we will continue to work on these efforts, building greater resilience in our people to allow us to emerge from this crisis stronger. We have evolved the COVID-19 Mental Wellness Taskforce, for example, to an inter-agency taskforce on mental health and mental well-being for the whole of Government, stitching together different agencies, ministries and stakeholders that will be involved in the delivery of mental health care and mental well-being in the public sector, coordinating and making sure that there is better service delivery, looking at policies, resource allocation, training and capability development. Very importantly, taking the lessons learnt during the pandemic to enhance our mental health efforts for the longer term, in collaboration with partners and key stakeholders.
8. The Brahm Centre is one of these stakeholders. I am very heartened to learn that Brahm Centre has impacted the lives of over 64,000 people from all ages and backgrounds in its mental health outreach efforts. With the intent of strengthening mental resilience and peer support for youths, Brahm Centre has introduced a Mindful Academic Coaching programme in February this year, providing free one-to-one academic coaching and guided mindfulness practices for secondary school students. Brahm Centre will also be piloting a mindfulness-based mental health literacy programme in schools involving Dr Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist from Harvard University and local psychiatrists. This will allow students, parents and teachers to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of how our minds work to achieve effective learning and emotional regulation.
9. Once again, I would like to thank Brahm Centre and all our mental health partners for your extraordinary support and efforts during these difficult times. I hope we can continue to work together to foster greater mental health care, resilience and well-being in our society.
10. And to all participants, I wish everyone a fruitful and fulfilling time at the conference. Stay well, stay safe, and stay strong. Thank you.