Urgent Need to Highlight Severity of Mental Health Among Teens

By Radhika Wijesekera –

According to a recent study carried out by the National University of Singapore (NUS), one-tenth of teenagers in the country suffer from one or more mental health disorders. 

In a heartening development, it has also been found that more youth have started seeking professional medical help for support, thanks to years of awareness-creation on the topic.

Incidentally, CHAT (the Community Health Assessment Team) offers free mental health outreach catering to youth under 30, and started with just 51 cases 14 years ago, but today has garnered more than 1,231 referrals in the first nine months of last year. This is indicative of the willingness of young people today to seek help for their mental wellbeing. 

In an exclusive interview with AsiaBizToday, Dive Analytics CEO and co-founder Peh Zhan Hao shared his thoughts and insights of the developing mental health problems among the youth in Singapore today. 

According to Peh, a 6% increase of those seeking medical advice has been observed, while the number of patients admitted to hospitals have decreased by 14.5% compared to a pre-pandemic baseline recorded in 2019. This is seen as a step in the right direction.

Still, more than 70% of Singaporeans who were surveyed claimed that there is a general lack of awareness associated with mental health and feel that they are not adequately equipped to support someone who may be facing such problems.

Clearly, there is a need to educate the public about the severity of mental health issues along with the secondary issues that come with it. Knowing how to provide support to the people around those suffering from mental health issues is critical, particularly coming from within the community itself.

Such awareness would raise red flags within the community, prompting the sufferer to seek help sooner rather than later, allowing them to seek early and timely intervention. Failing to do so would result in the condition worsening over time, leading to an overload of patients at mental healthcare facilities. 

Mental health problems are not limited to Singapore. A study carried out by the International Islamic University, Malaysia revealed that almost a half of adolescents experienced symptoms of anxiety, while a third of them experienced stress and depressive symptoms.

In Thailand, the number of young people suffering from depression is over 1.5 million. 

Youths aged 14–16 are seen as more vulnerable, as they make the transition into adulthood, where a third of adolescents have stated that they have internalised feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness. One-sixth have experienced externalised mental health symptoms, including hyperactivity, rule-breaking, and aggression. 

Regrettably, depression and anxiety have a significant impact on the education of children. On average, these youths have missed no less than 190 hours of school (24 days), reflecting in a noticeable decline in performance. The situation is quite worrying, as nearly two-thirds of these affected youths had to make unplanned visits to the emergency departments and a little over half had required inpatient care over the past year. Furthermore, parents report having to spend an average of S$ 10,250 on medical care for these children. 

These findings underscore the urgent need for increased awareness and support for mental health problems among this group, which will be the only means of ensuring the well-being and educational success of Singapore’s youth. 

Mental Health Services and REACH teams

According to Peh, the Health Ministry has developed mental health services which are deployed in schools, while REACH (Response, Early Intervention and Assessment in Community Mental Health) teams provide active support to students. 

At community level, CHAT (Community Health Assessment Teams) reach out to youth who are at risk and provide mental health resources and assessments, while the National Council of Social Services provides counselling services and helplines. 

However, the broad-level assistance provided by these groups sometimes doesn’t net certain youth who are, at times, not even aware that they are suffering from a mental health complication. Here then is where the adults, peers and educators around them can provide the necessary support.  

In spite of various outreach initiatives and trainings carried out by the Ministry of Education, relying on the students themselves to seek help isn’t always feasible. Given that this age group spends much of their time in school, educators play a crucial role in identifying mental health problems among the youth. 

Nurture Platform

The Nurture platform is Dive Analytics’ ground-breaking solution to equip teachers and counsellors to actively monitor student well-being, identify “silent sufferers,” and provide timely interventions.

It provides a comprehensive, 360-degree understanding of the students’ well-being and holistic development. Through a range of tools including daily well-being check-ins, weekly self-reflection, and termly surveys analysing students’ social networks, our comprehensive platform provides teachers with real-time dashboards and reports that unveil invaluable insights into students’ emotional states, sleep habits, attitudes, and social connections. Going beyond mere data, Nurture actively fosters a culture of seeking assistance when necessary, enabling educators to promptly identify and support students who may be at risk, ensuring timelier intervention and support. 

Social Network Analysis, and how it can be used as an effective tool to address adolescent mental health issues

Social network analysis (SNA) addresses the social development aspect of students where the objective is to demystify social interactions and help students develop meaningful relationships with their peers. Through network analysis, educators will be able to accurately understand social relationships including clique formation, among students in class and detect potential outcast students in need of help. 

Leveraging Technology

In spite of all the efforts taken by the authorities to demystify mental health problems, a certain degree of stigma still surrounds the topic in Singaporean culture. As a result, a young person may well choose to suffer in silence so as to not embarrass their families by actively seeking help. 

Peh maintains a strong opinion that using technology to make accessing safer ways of seeking help easier and more discreet would greatly benefit anyone who may feel this stigma. He further emphasised that the use of conversational AI could function as a virtual companion, offering the initial level of counselling to students who exhibit a low desire to speak out about their mental well-being, prior to the involvement of teachers and counsellors for a more comprehensive evaluation. 

AI will also be used to support students in enhancing their self-awareness and emotional self-regulation by providing personalised reports that highlight any significant patterns and statistics derived from previous check-ins.

When asked about the point at which mental health professionals should be brought in, Peh said: “I think it’s first important to know that our Nurture platform focuses on improving the tracking of students’ well-being and empowering teachers with the insights collected for them to take the necessary interventions when needed. Through the results collected from surveys integrated within the platform, we are able to identify at-risk students and highlight them to teachers. Once highlighted, teachers will then make the decision upon speaking with the students to decide if an intervention from a trained mental health professional is necessary.”

“Truly nipping the problem in the bud will require a collaborative effort between teachers, our platform, mental health professionals, students and their families and even the government,” he added further. 

In a few concluding remarks, Peh added that he encourages schools to adopt a holistic approach when monitoring and supporting students’ mental well-being. Traditional social and emotional learning (SEL) surveys may display only one side of the picture, and therefore, it is important to embrace technology to help. Simple well-being check-ins can be seamlessly integrated into professional learning devices such as iPads or Chromebooks, taking only a few minutes of their curriculum time.

Concerns relating to data privacy and PDPA can be addressed through various methods such as the anonymising of students’ identities and other appropriate measures. These concerns should not hinder innovation, as failing to adapt could potentially result in some students slipping under the radar. As a society, everybody has a responsibility to find the right balance between innovation and safeguarding student well-being.