Associate Professor Angie Chew, CEO and Mindfulness Principal, Brahm Centre
Associate Prof Peter Pang, Master, National University of Singapore Residential College 4
Ladies and Gentlemen
Thank you very much, A/Prof Chew and A/Prof Pang for your introductions and speeches this morning. A lot has been said about the unprecedented nature of COVID-19. Indeed, there are potentially many silver linings. I would imagine, if you had suggested a team of five or six people could organise a conference for 4,000 people from around the world and make it available for free – with a distinguished list of panelists and speakers and experts from around the world joining – if you had put that idea out a year or two ago, I don’t know if you would have persuaded many people of your ability. But now, this also like many other things has become possible.
2 Nevertheless, organising a conference about an issue like this requires many partners. It is a testament to both the complexity of this issue, as well as the willingness by stakeholders to get engaged, that we can have a conference like this, organised by Brahm Centre, National University of Singapore, Institute of Mental Health, Agency for Integrated Care, National Council of Social Services, National Healthcare Group, and SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre. Many people, coming together in this space to contribute. This breadth of partnership tells us about the importance of this issue, but also how it affects many different layers of our community, and many different aspects and facets.
The Impact of COVID-19 on mental health
3 The COVID-19 pandemic has not just been all about silver linings and transformations, from telecommuting, to safe distancing, to organising conferences. It has also generated quite a lot of uncertainty. The primary uncertainty that we are grappling with every day is how long this will go on. We can remember when things were quite different, but we do not know when we are going to change from today’s experiences. It is possible that this new normal may have to be the watermark for some time, and we may have to find a way to adapt, to adjust the way we live, work and play, and adapt on the basis that we are in this, certainly for some time, and we will need to reduce the risk of spreading the virus and keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. Not for a month or two of a circuit breaker, but potentially for a year or two. The uncertainty of time, the uncertainty of measures, as well as the uncertainty of the effectiveness of measures have resulted in stressors impacting our mental wellbeing.
National Care Hotline
4 This will affect us as individuals, as a community, and test our resilience, our cohesion, our sense of peacefulness. We recognise this. The Ministry of Health (MOH), government agencies, and most importantly our community partners have been working on this for some time, prior to the start of COVID-19. Not because we knew that a pandemic was coming along, but we knew there would be tests such as this, and we would need to enable many people to work together – a community of practice and a community of care to drive mental health. We launched the Community Mental Health Masterplan in 2017, increasing outreach, developing early detection processes, providing care and support to those living with mental health conditions in the community, and a number of initiatives have been rolled out and I think we have made some good progress.
5 The Agency of Integrated Care (AIC) has set up a network of 43 community outreach teams and trained over 24,000 frontline staff, recognising that this is not something just for people in specialist and niche roles, but really all frontline staff across government agencies and community partners, will need some confidence in identifying persons with mental health needs in the community so that we can refer them to appropriate support. And as of last year, we have reached out to over 300,000 persons as a result.
6 Not all of them needed specialised care and not all of them needed particular intervention. For example more than 23,000 of them were at risk of developing mental health conditions or dementia, and needed some form of specialist intervention. Those partners who are themselves, specialist practitioners or general practitioners for example, may not have the confidence or experience necessarily in this particular area, and they too, need to be provided the skills and confidence to diagnose and support persons with mental health conditions in the community. We have been working with partners to train General Practitioners, and even as we want to reinforce the idea of community response, there are individuals who will need medicalised response. But we want for that more and more to happen within the community.
7 We’ve got the National CARE Hotline, so that individuals have direct access to discuss their concerns and anxiety and adjustment issues. And we have had 900 counsellors, psychiatrists, social workers and public officers stepping forward to volunteer to man the hotline. It has handled about 28,000 calls and about 12,000 of these calls have been channeled to the trained volunteers to administer psychological first aid. Essentially, counselling care and support, helping to deal with mental resilience, helping to deal with stressors. This adaptation is the new normal. We keep using the word. In a way, it is a recognition that what we are all going through is entirely natural and expected given the circumstances. It would be abnormal not to feel stress and anxiety, given what we are going through. It would be abnormal to be blasé and pretend that there is an impact on each of us personally or on our relationships.
SG UNited EFFORTS
8 But it is not entirely a given that we would come together as a community, that we would come together and help one another. This is something that we should be thankful for, and this is something we should help drive and support. Other partners such as the Ministry of Culture, Community & Youth and the Health Promotion Board are working through the SG United effort, trying to drive and develop the idea that we can all extend our support and concern for people around us. And community groups can and have stepped up to do more for those who are affected by COVID-19. Our community mental health partners have provided mental health promotion services and conducted urgent home visits for vulnerable clients. Everybody can come together and help us adjust together to this new normal, and to the stressors and anxieties that we all face.
9 There are some good examples out there. There are community partners who are doing things which we can all learn from, and hopefully more of us can get involved. For example, Silver Ribbon (Singapore) and Fei Yue are providing video and online counselling services, while Montfort Care Singapore runs daily shows teaching preventive health exercises on their Facebook page. The Alzheimer’s Disease Association (ADA) running weekly online Zoom activities such as art and craft, bingo, cooking and karaoke. And collaborations from ADA, AIC, Singapore Police Force and Singapore Food Agency on an initiative known as SPOC-19, or ‘Support for Persons living with dementia, to offer assistance to persons living with dementia and their caregivers, and recognising that this group is vulnerable not just from their condition, but also from their ability to comply to COVID-19 safety measures, and how do we help them to become increasingly integrated and comfortable with members of the community.
10 Employers have played their part, putting in place mental wellness programs such as talks and counselling services. But most importantly, awareness to help their staff tide through this difficult period of adjusting to the new normal of working from home and workplace safe management measures, and proactively trying to build that resilience and strength to adapt.
11 This pandemic, like many crises, has demonstrated that we need a whole of society approach, to shift mindsets, to build emotional and mental resilience, to adapt and to bring our society together. The event theme this year, Enhancing Resilience & Performance, aims to engage the participants with a focus on the present, shifting our mindsets and responding mindfully to changes, to empower ourselves to lead happier and healthier lives. It is timely and appropriate, and something we can all engage with productively. I am very grateful and heartened to know that social service agencies like the Brahm Centre have continued to provide their services and programmes, such as free health talks and exercise, art therapy, mindfulness and meditation classes, adapting your services to the platforms and the times, to provide them virtually to those who need them.
12 To conclude, I would like to thank our mental health partners such as Brahm Centre for their ongoing huge support in promoting overall health and wellbeing through a holistic approach, especially during this testing period. I hope that through this conference, we can share best practices and learn each other’s best practices together in developing better communities that can help us weather this storm.
13 Please continue to stay safe, stay strong, and I hope you have a fruitful and fulfilling time at the conference. Thank you very much.