‘Mental health stigma has reduced’


Young people volunteering for mental health causes say the stigma surrounding mental health problems has eased among their peers, in part due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Jovan Chong, 20, is a volunteer at mental health charity Resilience Collective, whose peer support programmes involve persons with mental health conditions, typically aged from 18 to 35.

Chong, who is doing his national service, says: “With increased media coverage and higher demand for mental health services, I feel the mental health stigma is reducing. During the lockdown last year, people started to realise that mental health is a pertinent issue.”

The pandemic has increased isolation and anxiety, engendering mental health issues worldwide.

Another mental health volunteer, P. Keerthana, says the pandemic has accelerated the increasing normalisation of conversations surrounding the once-taboo subject in some quarters.

Keerthana, 26, volunteers as an ambassador for the Community Health Assessment Team (Chat) that provides youth with mental health information and support for those between 16 and 30 years old.

She says: “I feel that among my peers, the mental health stigma has been reduced now, compared with when I was in university. We have been speaking more openly and having conversations about our mental health. For instance, we talk about how self-care and rest are important.”

Besides checking in with friends and colleagues more frequently, Keerthana, who works at a statutory board, says: “Especially during the current Covid-19 situation, when most of us are working from home and have other stress factors, such as not being able to go out, we share openly and talk about how we can keep ourselves occupied and find ways to destress.”

Singapore Management University sociologist Paulin Straughan says a wider societal awareness of mental health in recent years has contributed to more help-seeking behaviour among younger people.

Prof Straughan says: “It’s among the younger people that the stigma of mental illness has lifted. They are encouraged to seek help. Sharing their thoughts and concerns as well as rallying social support to partner those who need more help seem to be a strategy that many young people have adopted.”

Catherine Chua, manager of Institute of Mental Health’s (IMH) volunteer programme, says many young volunteers at IMH want to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health conditions.

“Some have relatives or friends recovering from a mental health condition. They want to learn more about mental health issues so that they can educate, raise awareness or support their significant others in their recovery,” she says.

“Some volunteers have mental health challenges themselves. Having gone through the recovery process, they want to give back by using their lived experience to help those who are recovering from their mental health condition.”

While there are no national statistics regarding youth volunteering for mental health causes, some non-profit agencies have seen a spike in youth volunteers.

The Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH) has close to 170 volunteers aged between 18 and 25, a figure that has roughly doubled since 2019.

Campus PSY, which promotes mental health awareness and peer support among young people, similarly saw its volunteer numbers double to 100 last year when the pandemic started, compared with in 2019.

Its founder and executive director Cho Ming Xiu says: “Many of these volunteers say they want to do something meaningful during Covid-19.”

He added that some young people express a clear preference for peer support, rather than approaching authority figures for help with their mental health issues.

He says: “Feedback through our focus group discussions has highlighted that young people prefer to share their challenges with persons of a similar age, as they would be able to empathise with the youth’s struggles in the same life stage.”

Some youth cited “past negative experiences with mental health professionals” as they felt judged, or that their confidentiality was breached when their parents or teachers were told about their struggles, says Cho. — The Straits Times/ANN

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