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The mental health crisis in the wake of Covid-19 and what you can do about it

Mental health is a prevalent issue in Singapore. According to the second nationwide Singapore Mental Health Study (SMHS) initiated in 2016, one in seven people in Singapore has experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime. Major depressive disorder (MDD), bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are among the most common ailments people face.

The expats or non-Singaporeans who make up a sizeable chunk of the country’s working population are also vulnerable to mental health issues: travel and relocation are considered one of the most stressful life events a person can go through.

While exciting, relocation involves leaving existing support systems like friends and family, as well as familiar and comforting environments. Culture shock and homesickness can easily turn into bouts of depression.

Current events are only making things worse. Quarantine measures and work from home arrangements are heightening stress and anxiety levels among Singaporeans. As employees remain isolated for long periods or struggle to balance work and family-life at home, mental wellbeing may be at a higher risk.

| Read more: The New Normal – Life at Home After the 2020 Circuit Breaker |

The economic and job uncertainty brought about by the pandemic are also taking an emotional toll. As of the first week of August, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said Singapore lost 147,500 jobs since the start of 2020.

The National Care hotline, which was launched in April to provide emotional and psychological support to those facing difficulties during the pandemic, has received 26,000 calls as of August. The majority of callers were above 21 years of age and said their top concerns include “mental health, marital and family issues, emotional support needed, and financial or employment worries.”

As Singaporeans struggle with their mental health issues, they also suffer from a lack of support systems to help them seek treatment.

The crisis no one wants to talk about

Mental health is a taboo in Singapore society. In spite of the number of Singaporeans with mental health disorders, there’s a huge treatment gap. The same SMHS study showed that more than three-quarters of people diagnosed with a mental health disorder do not seek professional help in their lifetime. Those who do seek treatment only do so after a considerable delay.

For example, individuals diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) sought help or treatment 11 years after exhibiting symptoms.

There is a stigma associated with mental illness. Singaporeans regard it as a sign of “personal weakness,” with those affected by it saying they “could get better if they wanted to.” A survey conducted by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) found that six in 10 people believe that mental health conditions are caused by “a lack of self-discipline and willpower.” And more than five in 10 said they were unwilling to live with, live nearby, or work with a person with a mental health condition.

This attitude toward mental health is reflected in the country’s policies. Only 3% of the country’s overall health budget is dedicated to mental health; mental health education is glaringly absent from school curriculums; and very few health insurance providers cover mental health in their policies.

The number of health workers relating to mental and psychiatric care is also scarce. According to the Ministry of Health (MOH), there are only 248 psychiatrists and 473 psychologists practising in Singapore. This translates to just 4.4 psychiatrists and 8.3 psychologists per 100,000 people.

It’s no wonder that therapy comes with a high price tag—one session alone can cost somewhere between S$150 to S$400. Depending on the severity of the mental health condition, you’ll likely require several sessions across a period of time. And if your illness is particularly difficult to treat, you’ll also have to shell out money for hospitalisation. Notably, Singapore General Hospital only has one psychiatric ward.

Anthea Ong, Nominated Member of Parliament, asked 400 respondents through an online platform to share their experiences with mental health and mental healthcare in Singapore. At least 66% of respondents said that mental healthcare costs here are high, and 10 respondents stated their financial struggles caused them to stop seeking help.

With the threat of the virus looming in every corner, Covid-19 is further preventing those who do seek help from getting the treatment they need.

What can you do for your mental health in the time of Covid-19?

For all those who are seeking help during this trying time, there are a few options for you to prevent, alleviate, and mitigate the financial burden of mental stress:

Make use of health and wellness applications

Meditation can be an effective means of reducing psychological stress and stress-related health problems. It has been shown to lead to better focus and concentration as well as improved self-awareness and self-esteem.

Taking a few minutes to meditate each day is relatively easy to do. There are several types of meditation you can practice, from traditional zen meditation to guided visualisation. If you prefer guided meditation, there are free meditation apps in the market that can help you build your practice. Some apps recommended are Headspace, Calm, and Aura — or you can start with the 21-Day Abundance meditation challenge by Deepak Chopra.

If you require more targeted assistance, Intellect is a new application that offers self-guided exercises based on cognitive behavioural therapy techniques.

Singapore-based founder Theodoric Chew created Intellect to make mental health more approachable and accessible, particularly in countries like Singapore where mental health is not oft-discussed. Take note that Intellect is not meant to be a replacement for actual therapy, but an alternative for those who are looking for day-to-day self-care. The app is free for users during the pandemic but it will charge a flat monthly fee thereafter.

Use your employee sick leaves for mental health treatment or recovery

According to the Ministry of State of MOM Zaqy Mohamad, sick leaves can be used for both mental and physical health conditions. To qualify for paid sick leave, the employee must be certified as “unfit for work” by a medical practitioner.

This means you can take a breather from the stress of meetings and deadlines to be with your loved ones and focus on your mental health. Even though we’re all stuck at home, a much-needed break can do wonders for the psyche.

Call a free helpline

If you’re looking for someone to talk to, staying connected with your family and friends through phone or video calls can uplift your mental health. But if you feel like you can’t speak so openly about your psychological well being, then there are free helplines to do just that.

  • National Care Hotline (8am-12am daily, from 1 Sep 2020) – 1800-202-6868
  • Fei Yue’s Online Counselling Service
  • Institute of Mental Health’s Mental Health Helpline (6389-2222)
  • Samaritans of Singapore (1800-221-4444)
  • Silver Ribbon Singapore (6385-3714)

Take part in online counselling sessions

While people are discouraged from meeting face-to-face, Singaporeans have the option to conduct online counselling sessions. If you have an existing therapist, you can ask them if they would be willing to conduct therapy over a video conferencing application. If that’s inaccessible, there are also platforms like Safe Space where you can book counselling sessions online.

Availability of grants and subsidies

If you need financial support for treatment, you should know that you can use your Medisave for mental health therapy and counselling treatment at public hospitals.

Under the Chronic Disease Management Programme (CDMP), you can get treatment for schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety in an outpatient setting. You can withdraw up to S$500 from MediSave per year, and if you’re over 60 years old then you can withdraw another S$200 per year under the Flexi-MediSave scheme.

You can also use up to 10 of your family members’ accounts to pay for outpatient treatment for these ailments, up to S$500 per account, per year. Each claim is subject to a 15% co-payment in cash.

| Related: MediShield Life: Premiums, benefits and 2020 review |

If you require in-patient care at a public hospital, you can get subsidies from MediShield Life or MediSave. And if you are having trouble with your medical bills, then you can approach medical social workers at public healthcare institutions for additional financial assistance.

Insurer Chubb recently announced a new Work From Home Insurance policy that covers risks that come with remote work during the pandemic. For example, you can claim up to S$2,000 on surgery for postural injuries relating to poor workstation setups. Notably, you can get a S$500 mental health payment if you are diagnosed with stress disorders stemming from working from home.

Regain a sense of control

The entire 2020 has been a beacon of bad news. When things seem out of hand, one of the best feelings is regaining a semblance of control over our lives. One way to do that is by volunteering our time or donating to a grander cause. Not only can this provide a sense of purpose, but it can also help offer hope and reassurance during a period of uncertainty.

Open the discussion for mental health

The first step to normalising mental health is to open discussions centered around the issue with loved and trusted ones. Singapore is going through turbulent times, and now is the best time to speak up and acknowledge our vulnerability. Once we do that, we can begin to take the necessary steps to heal.

Healing looks like a lot of different things to different people. It could be taking a few deep breaths every day. Or it could be sitting in a hospital bed and consulting a medical professional. In either scenario, it’s ok not to be ok.

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