SINGAPORE – The youth of today face starkly different mental health challenges compared with those before them, a profound issue which the Government must recognise if it wants to tackle the problem at hand, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Saturday (Oct 16).
“The Government can make a statement to say, ‘We see that this generation has additional challenges leading to mental health issues, and we should not stigmatise it; we should be open, share, and that is part and parcel of preventive and community care,'” he added.
Mr Ong said the Interagency Taskforce on Mental Health and Well-being, set up in August, has been moving in this direction.
He was speaking at an in-person panel discussion organised and live-streamed on Facebook by Project: It’ll Be Alright, a community support initiative under the government-supported Youth Mental Well-Being Network.
The project is mentored by Minister of State for Social and Family Development and Education Sun Xueling, who moderated the session on Saturday.
Mr Ong said the statement that “young people are more liberal in their thinking and more rebellious” held true for youth across the centuries.
But when it comes to mental health, something has changed for this generation.
“I do not think it’s just a matter of young people talking more about it, therefore, general higher awareness. I don’t think it’s a matter of better diagnosis,” he noted.
“I do think, looking at WHO (World Health Organisation) data and other data around the world, we are seeing a higher incidence of mental health issues among young people.
“It’s important for us to recognise that something has changed in the last 10, 20 years.”
This is a matter that “preoccupies” the Ministry of Health, and the interagency task force chaired by Senior Minister of State for Health Janil Puthucheary is keen to hear the views of youths, said Mr Ong.
Bullying, as an example, has a different impact on mental health today.
“Now, most people are on their gadgets and they are talking through things like gaming. There’s a lot more bullying… it’s written, and it’s kept there,” said panellist and clinical psychologist Sunita Rai, referring to online platforms.
“In the past, maybe you will replay (the bullying) for three, four days, then you move on. Now you see it, and you look at it again and again and again.”
Mr Ong then related his own playground experience when young.
“I got punched in the nose,” he said. “But after that, you settle things and it’s done, over.
“There’s no mob, and (the act) doesn’t stay there forever.”
Ms Sun noted that these were new “parameters” faced by the youth and that social media can be a force for good but also used negatively.
In this environment, society needs to normalise conversations where there are young people facing stress and distress, and ensure an ecosystem of support around them, she said.
TikTok’s South-east Asia public policy head, Ms Teresa Tan, said the video-sharing platform has been building up individuals and organisations in the mental health space as “wellness content creators”.
Their main goal is to post short-form educational videos to support vulnerable, at-risk youth.
Mr Ong stressed the importance of teaching the youth, from early on, the skills to survive in a virtual world.
“From primary school, we throw them into the jungle of the Internet, and they are supposed to survive. It’s too much to ask for a child,” he added.
“There has to be a whole new literacy other than numeracy and language literacy… and that is digital literacy.”
Influencer Joel Lim said that aside from a one-size-fits-all solution of public education, young people should each take the time to understand the online environments they are immersing themselves in.
They should also explore what resources and tools are available for them to curate a positive experience out of it.
Mr Ong then concluded the discussion with his acknowledgement that the Government could take a clear stance on recognising and calling for openness to mental health issues faced by the youth today.
“In terms of reducing stigma, what the Government says, I must admit, counts,” he said.
“I think it will be a useful statement that it needs to make publicly, so we know as a society where we stand on this issue.”
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