Associate Professor Daniel Fung
Mr Tan Kwang Cheak
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good morning. I am honoured to join you at the 6th Singapore Mental Health Conference. I thank the IMH, AIC, NCSS and HPB team for organising this year’s conference – putting together a strong programme line-up, which I am confident will greatly enrich our participants.
2. In my address, I hope to set out the context for the rest of the conference, by speaking about three things. First, how COVID-19 has impacted mental health. Second, how we have responded. And, third, looking ahead and what it means for us. Let me begin.
THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON MENTAL HEALTH
3. Humans are Social Creatures by nature; or Social animals, as what the famous Social Psychologist Elliot Aronson described in his landmark book of the same title in 1972. While we may have our individual personality differences, ranging one end of the extraversion scale to the other, humans share a core trait of wanting to feel belonged, and being part of a community. We treasure our daily social interactions. From our loved ones and friends, neighbourhood stallholders whom we frequent, to acquaintances and familiar faces whom we recognise in our community.
4. When COVID-19 struck, physical social interactions like these were largely put to a halt. Especially at its peak when safe distancing measures were imposed. Countries, including Singapore, were left with few choices – all of which were tough and had difficult trade-offs. Because if they did not impose these measures, more lives would have been lost. One trade-off was the very real risk of social isolation, especially among the vulnerable. Such as our elderly, who would be at the mercy of this faceless virus, if they caught it. Compounded with increasing anxieties from catching the virus as well as financial stressors arising from disrupted livelihoods, these had knock-on effects to wellbeing.
5. In Singapore, IMH found that between May 2020 to June this year, about 13% of the general population reported experiencing depression or anxiety symptoms, during the one year since the pandemic started. While these findings may be preliminary, I think that anecdotally most of us may have seen or experienced this in one way or another. Whether it is among the clients whom we serve, the students we teach, our colleagues, or even within our circle of friends.
6. What was also concerning during the pandemic, was the loose ascribing of mental health conditions to persons who have knowingly flouted safe management measures. Their behaviour may or may not be mental health related. By correlating such acts with being mentally unwell, it does not only trivialize the matter, but also reveals a lack of awareness, threatening to deepen the stigma of mental health conditions further. We can certainly do more to raise mental health literacy.
7. The pandemic has also resulted in some experiencing a state of low mental well-being, and feelings of stagnation and emptiness. What some might call ‘languishing’ – a lack of motivation and focus; even though there are no mental health symptoms present. Think about it as the middle state – between being well and flourishing on one end and having a mental health condition at the other. It is not a trivial matter. Because languishing has been reported to be a risk factor for the development of mental health conditions. This is an issue of concern, fueled by the ongoing pandemic.
OUR RESPONSE TO ADDRESS MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES
8. To this end, we have mounted a whole-of-society response to address the concerns and impact on mental health brought about by the pandemic.
9. At the broader planning level, we had convened an inter-agency COVID-19 Mental Wellness Taskforce last October to enable us to take stock of the impact and how we have addressed it. But beyond the macro planning efforts that the taskforce is doing, I would like to share about three groups of initiatives that we have already started: to provide psychological support; to raise awareness; and to rally the community.
10. The first is the National CARE Hotline. We had quickly set it up last April to provide psychological first aid to anyone in Singapore who was affected by the stresses that COVID-19 brought along. It was very manpower intensive, as it ran 24/7. Hence, we made an urgent call for volunteers to assist with manning the lines. Many answered the call, across the public and people sectors. Some went beyond the call of duty, taking on multiple shifts, others volunteered for midnight and weekend shifts – all on top of their daily jobs! They have handled over 45,000 calls since it started. We are deeply grateful for their tremendous efforts, and the initiative of many of our other mental health partners who had stepped up during the crisis. I know that some of you are here today as well, and I would like to acknowledge your contributions.
11. Second, raising awareness at the population level. MCCY and HPB launched the ‘Brave the New’ campaign towards the end of last year, providing simple tips on self-care and supporting others who are emotionally distressed, riding on the ‘Beyond the Label’ campaign, which was first launched in 2018 by NCSS to rally the community to reduce the stigma of mental health conditions.
12. Third, rallying the community together to come up with solutions, particularly for the young. The Government launched the Youth Mental Well-being Network last February, bringing together the wider society to ideate and work on ideas to improve the well-being of our youth. Over 1,500 individuals, ranging from all walks of life, responded. They are now working on over 20 projects looking at important areas, such as strengthening peer support, and increasing emotional resilience.
13. These initiatives are some of the many ways in which our society has responded to these new challenges. But we can do more and better. This brings me to my final point.
LOOKING BEYOND THE IMMEDIATE EFFECTS OF COVID-19
14. The pandemic will be with us for some time. We will have to continue to adapt the way we respond to it and how we go about our lives. More importantly, it underscores the need to adopt a long-term approach in addressing the psychological aspects of its impact. Therefore, I am glad that this year’s conference theme is about exploring ‘Future Paradigms of Mental Health’.
15. To succeed, we need to internalise the lessons learnt, not only in managing infectious diseases, but also in addressing the mental health needs of the population moving forward. This is one of the key reasons why we have evolved the COVID-19 Mental Wellness Taskforce, which I mentioned earlier, to look at addressing the population’s mental health in the longer term, with a focus on cross-cutting issues across agency lines.
16. One promising area is on harnessing the use of technology, such as Telehealth. We have already started doing so. One example is mindline.sg, which the MOH Office for Healthcare Transformation has rolled out. It aims to be a one-stop repository of resources and tools to improve mental well-being. You can even find a clinically validated self-assessment tool that one can use to conveniently understand their state of emotional well-being through answering a series of questions. The platform can also recommend appropriate intervention and support pathways based on their assessments.
17. In closing, I would like to share an excerpt from a recent article published in The Atlantic by Professors Lara Aknin, Jamil Zaki and Elizabeth Dunn – members of an international Mental Health and Wellbeing Taskforce commissioned by The Lancet.
18. While they had described some of the toughest challenges faced by those financially affected by the pandemic and those with mental health conditions, they also offered a picture of hope and resilience that is within all of us. They said and I quote that, “as we look ahead to the world’s next great challenges – including a future pandemic – we need to remember this hard-won lesson: human beings are not passive victims of change but active stewards of our own well-being”. A timely reminder for us.
19. Let us work together, across all parts and levels of society, to actively steward the mental well-being and health of our nation. Because we cannot do this alone. May this conference be an opportunity for us to learn from the best and spark off new ideas on how we can do better and go further together. I am confident that this would put us in good stead to not only build up the resilience of individuals, but of our entire nation.
20. I wish all of you a fruitful and fulfilling time at the conference. Stay safe and stay strong. Thank you.