Protecting the Mental Health of Youths In a Pandemic

By the SMU Digital Marketing Team

Covid-19 is a healthcare crisis that has devastated the lives of many around the world. Besides battling the physical effects of the pandemic on infected patients, healthcare professionals face another medical emergency: The dramatic rise of mental health disorders, especially among the young.

In the UK, where schools were shut for a good part of the year, a government report stated that one in six children aged five to 16 had a probable mental health disorder in 2020, increasing from one in nine three years earlier. In the US, hospitals saw a 31 per cent rise in mental health emergency visits by 12- to 17-year-olds in April to October from a year earlier, according to the local Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Closer to home, a recent tragedy of a 13-year-old student whose life was ended by a classmate in school has sparked mental health concerns in Singapore. Furthermore, the suicide rate of youths aged 10 to 19 had risen from 4.0 per 100,000 in 2019 to 5.5 per 100,000 in 2020.

 

“Unpredictable lockdowns and restrictions can result in anxiety and fear among young adults.”

 

“Unpredictable lockdowns and restrictions can result in anxiety and fear among young adults,” notes Dr Ada Chung, a practising counsellor who has been working in the areas of children and youth and family service for over 20 years, and Head of the SMU Mrs Wong Kwok Leong Student Wellness Centre (MWKLSWC).

“This further exacerbates the lack of opportunities in socialisation, education and mental wellbeing which are crucial for their life stage development.”

The MWKLSWC is a safe space for students who require a reprieve from the rigours of academic life through its facilities: The Counselling Place and The Cosy Haven.

 

Why are youths the hardest hit?

It is evident that everyone, young and old, is susceptible to having their mental health impacted by the coronavirus crisis. And while Dr Chung observes that all students are technically exposed to these risks, “the actual extent of impact can be dependant on vulnerability factors such as educational status, developmental age maturity, having special needs, pre-existing mental health disorders, or crises like a next-of-kin being quarantined and hospitalised due to infections”.

Dr Ada Chung, Head of SMU Mrs Wong Kwok Leong Student Wellness Centre

Even with safety measures lifting around the world, closures of schools have contributed to a disruption in routines and social interactions that are pivotal to maintaining mental health among youths. These factors, coupled with the underlying fear of being infected by Covid-19 itself, can create stress for any student.

And while financial woes are usually associated with older, working adults, young adults can experience these disruptions in both direct and indirect ways, notes Dr Chung.

“At their age, they may still be dependent on their parents in areas of disposable income and allowances,” she says.

“The economic impact on various groups within the society has widespread effects on employment and mental health.”

It has been shown that the mental health of unemployed people and those experiencing financial insecurity is worse than that of the general population. Notably, the OECD Risks That Matter 2020 survey revealed that two in three young people aged 18 to 29 are worried about their household’s finances and overall social and economic well-being, with more than half of the respondents stating either they or a family member have experienced a job loss since the onset of the pandemic.

While these effects might be short-term, some young people end up shouldering some of the consequences such as unemployment or financial issues arising within their families, coupled with future uncertainties. The reduction of internship and job opportunities during a downturn can also result in fewer opportunities for students, which in turn leads to greater economic insecurity and mental strain about financial stability.

 

Help is near

To mitigate the sense of disconnectedness and loneliness, it is important for educational institutions to continue engagement with their student community despite the various restrictions and virtual mode. On SMU’s part, Dr Chung’s team ensured that all the provision of services and programmes at the MWKLSWC are sustainable and able to continue through alternative modes. These include the full online conversion and delivery of existing resources such as the SMU Peer Helper Programme training programmes, mental health e-modules, podcasts, educational videos, newsletters, student workshops, mental health awareness-related outreach events and counselling services.

SMU Peer Helpers also has an app, developed by the MWKLSWC to facilitate the work of peer helping, and provide mental health tips and information based on the centre’s experiences of running the peer-helping programme in SMU for the past decade.

“The materials and training conversion from physical to online was a tantamount effort that required the motivated commitment of the entire counselling team,” admits Dr Chung.

“The successful transition requires planned and coordinated efforts with both internal and external stakeholders and partners to ensure a comprehensive online outreach which we do regularly.”

 

Destigmatising mental health

With the uptick in public figures speaking out about mental health, such as US gymnast Simone Biles’ exit from the Olympics due to concerns about her mental health and safety, the psychological wellness conversation has been brought to the forefront. The National Alliance on Mental Illness in the US had also created a mental health storytelling campaign in 2019, tapping on the personal stories of celebrities like those of National Football League player Chris Hubbard and actress Mayim Bialik to destigmatise mental illness, increase understanding of what it is like to live with a mental illness, and promote empathy.

However, as Dr Chung points out, “some of this sharing has been received with negative or discouraging comments”.

“Indirectly, this can create hesitation, fear and increased stigma for some individuals on coming out and being open to talking about mental health issues.”

Such public discussions may also be subject to interpretations by individuals. Moreover, the taboo of talking about mental health ranges in intensity according to prevailing societal and cultural norms. For example, a 2020 study on mental health stigmas in Singapore states that stigma can be manifested in different cultural contexts and societal influences, such as the Chinese notion of a loss in “face” or societal standing.

“Nonetheless, I still view this shift [towards speaking up about mental illness] as an encouraging step towards normalising the stigma against mental health issues,” says Dr Chung.

“As with all great initiatives, the journey is never smooth and I believe the day will come whereby mental health issues are viewed as part of the equilibrium of the society at large and people will be encouraged to talk, seek or refer help when possible.”

 

Building mental well-being as a community

As Dr Chung states, it is clear that the authorities have strongly encouraged and advocated the importance of mental health issues among youths over the past years. These efforts include the proliferation of mental health resources, initiatives and training within educational institutes and organisations, which signals the need for constant education and creating awareness on the importance of mental health for everyone including youths.

“This knowledge and awareness could be expanded from the schools and further emphasised into the working world to encompass inclusivity and acceptance of diversity,” adds Ada.

“Hopefully, through these concerted aligned efforts, the stigma surrounding mental health will be reduced.”

 

“It does not take specialised or comprehensive training just to reach out to someone.”

 

Besides relying on policymakers to create change, educators can also help to reduce stigma in Singapore by raising awareness surrounding mental health issues from young, imbuing the younger generation with empathy and the ability to support one another without being clouded by prejudice. As a society, we can also take steps to normalise discussions about mental health, and advocate mental healthcare as a resource for everyone to support life in general, and not just an avenue for treatment when problems arise.

“Everyone can and has an important role to play,” says Dr Chung.

“You can simply support someone in distress by providing a listening ear, providing or encouraging referrals to mental health professionals. It does not take specialised or comprehensive training just to reach out to someone.”

 

 

Need a listening ear? Call (65) 6828 0786 or email counselling@smu.edu.sg to contact the professional counsellors at The Counselling Place, who can provide assistance and support to SMU students facing stressful circumstances in their lives. Alternatively, drop by The Cosy Haven, a facility managed by SMU Peer Helpers for students to de-stress and recover from the daily challenges of academic life. More information on the counselling services offered by the Mrs Wong Kwok Leong Student Wellness Centre is available here.

 

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