Move beyond peer support to tackle mental health issues

Mental health

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Peer support alone is not the panacea to mental health issues among young Singaporeans. In fact, if the panel “has [already] received feedback that the waiting time for young people to see a counsellor can be very long, as there are not enough counsellors” (ST, Jan. 28), then instead of focusing disproportionately on building peer support networks on the ground per se the more impactful and sustainable solutions should revolve around increasing the number of trained counsellors or therapists in Singapore.

Relatedly, the issues which are up for discussion should therefore not be limited to just equipping more youths with the ability to render “mental health first-response capabilities”. The ongoing discourse ought to cover the number of trained professionals that we have and need in this country, the accessibility of these professionals, in terms of the high cost of consultations, the lack of insurance coverage for these services, and their limited presence for young Singaporeans in the schools, through National Service, and at the workplace, as well as – even more fundamentally – the reasons why counselling or therapy is needed, at the aggregate.

In other words, mental health issues have their sources. If for instance the persistent challenges of academic stress and distress over personal and familial relationships turn out to be the most common reasons explaining help-seeking behaviours, then deeper, national examinations of our school and family systems would be warranted.

At the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where I am currently completing my doctoral studies in social welfare, the student mental health centre for the UCLA campus offers services and programmes including individual counselling and psychotherapy, group therapy, couples counselling, psychiatric evaluation and treatment, and crisis consultation and emergency intervention. Students with university insurance coverage get up to six free individual counselling or therapy sessions per academic year, while those who opt out of the coverage only pay US$15 (S$20) per session. Besides the counselling centre at Yale-NUS College, it is not clear if any other schools or universities in Singapore offer such professional services with such accessibility and affordability. And if not, should that not be the focus of the ambitious SG Youth Action Plan, in terms of actually getting young Singaporeans to the services they need?

Peer support can and has helped reduce stigma associated with mental health issues, and at a more personal level the support does also provide a temporary resource for young Singaporeans who need non-urgent help. Yet unless these endeavours are matched by more institutional changes of having more trained counsellors or therapists and of confronting the causes of mental health issues in Singapore, then any ostensible gains will prove to be insignificant or could even cause more harm in the long-term.

A version of this article was published in ST (Feb. 1):

The National Youth Council responded on ST (Feb. 22):

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