Youth Mental Health: Opportunities and Challenges in A Digital World

Keynote Speech by Dr Tan See Leng, Minister for Manpower and Second Minister for Trade and Industry, Republic of Singapore

20 May 2022

A very good morning to all of you.

It is indeed a privilege and an honour to be amongst experts, and two of them I know very well. John Wong is one year my senior. Daniel Fung is many years my junior, so he is very young. They are experts in health transformation and change makers today, being able to discuss challenges in youth mental health. What are the kinds of opportunities for engagement and innovation to tackle some of these challenges collectively? I would not say it has been a long time since I was a youth. Actually, it seemed like yesterday when I met them in medical school, including Alex Sia. I think that these periods, these unprecedented times, have actually precipitated and coincided with a global surge in mental health challenges for our youths.

The National Youth Council’s data from last year showed that over 40% of youths who did not struggle before the pandemic reported that their mental wellbeing had worsened and this is actually quite a disturbing trend. 20% of the youths also reported poor or very poor wellbeing in 2021. A University of Calgary study, published in 2021, found that depressive and anxiety symptoms have doubled in children and adolescents globally, when compared to pre-pandemic estimates.

The Taskforce analysed Singapore's mental health landscape and developed recommendations to strengthen the mental health ecosystem for all citizens, including youth, in a number of ways – developing a national mental health and wellbeing strategy, building a one-stop online portal for national mental health resources and also creating a National Mental Health Competency Training Framework. There were multiple agencies – many of them actually have stepped up to task.

There was a national care hotline launched in April 2020 by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, to support those facing mental health concerns relating to COVID-19. And there is a national task force formed to look into dealing with this and coordinated across various ministries and across many sectoral agencies.

I guess it is serendipity – yesterday, we had a meeting on Taskforce Number 3 – this is organised and spearheaded by the Ministry of Health, but the Ministry of Manpower has also stepped in to see how we can actually work with employers, provide them with resourcing, and more significant handholding resource. This is because a lot of employers want to help in managing mental wellbeing at the workplace, in recruiting and hiring and placing employees with past history of mental issues – not necessarily the extreme ones – but with a history of I would not call them disorders but some form of mental health that is needed. What kind of resource is available to them? I think it is going to be very important moving forward and it is something that the Manpower Ministry is also looking into significantly and trying to commit more resources to.

It's because we want to ensure that the workplace, particularly not just for our youth – everyone is young – to think about how to make it a safe, a very welcoming environment to be in so that they can give their best without worry, without the fear of apprehension, of harassment, of being stigmatised or ostracised. I think it is important. From our studies, from anecdotal sharing by many employers, including myself in my past life as a corporate person, one key thing about most employers in not being able to come forward and help even more even though many of them want to is because of apprehension and the fear of the unknown, because they do not know.

Firstly, they don't know what they don't know and the other thing is that, should there be a crisis triggered, either as a result of some workplace or even on the internet itself, where do they get the resource to help them to deal with it? I think that if it is something that collectively, all of us can think about, including getting government agencies involved in this, I think it will go a long way. Perhaps during the conversations today, all of the experts here could think about this and provide ideas for us and the Manpower Ministry itself will be quite happy to adopt a very nuanced approach.

Our institutes of higher learning have also strengthened their mental health programmes. Our polytechnics and our Institutes of Technical Education have worked with the Health Promotion Board on a mental wellness literacy curriculum for all first-year students, to raise awareness and understanding of mental health as well as encourage and foster early help-seeking behaviour. Peer support structures have also been rolled out in every school, where students look out for one another and alert a trusted adult if there are concerns.

For all employers, whether they are here today or joining us online, we will continue to put out the message and we hope that through you, our ambassadors, you can also continue to encourage all employers to consider signing up for iWorkHealth. It is an online workplace psychosocial health assessment tool to find out their employee's overall state of mental wellbeing and their stress factors at work. The company report can provide a breakdown of the mental wellbeing scores by each age group and this will really be an enabling force to help both employers and younger workers, many of whom are online and also here, to better understand the state of your mental wellbeing, including devising a targeted approach to address the specific work stresses faced.

I am really glad that Temasek Foundation has made very concerted efforts to partner with community organisations and healthcare experts on mental health programmes that raise awareness, build capability, and raise mental health literacy. Platforms like this, Temasek Shophouse Conversations, are especially helpful in bringing leaders and policymakers together, to collaborate and to take action on youth mental health.

Lastly, at the community level, I am heartened to see that about 1500 individuals, comprising youths, parents, caregivers, and mental health professionals, have started more than 20 ground-up projects under the Youth Mental Wellbeing Network, or YMWBN. The government will press on. We will give our fullest support to strengthen and grow the YMWBN. Besides support from the various organisations and initiatives, each and every individual in the community can play a big part. We can start by showing empathy in our day-to-day interactions with others, such as by understanding the issues faced by our youths that they are real, and that we will listen to their needs, and we will give support to them.

I am hopeful that, with the healthcare experts from KK Women’s and Children's Hospital and a community mobiliser like Campus PSY, today's conversation will bring about multi-sectoral collaboration, to take action and to do good together. I thank the organisers again for this wonderful initiative and I wish all of you a very productive, fruitful, most importantly, relaxing conversation ahead. Thank you very much.