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‘It’s really about normalising mental health’: What schools are doing so students seek help

SINGAPORE: When Kranji Secondary’s peer support leaders last year initiated a project called #SAFESPACE to increase awareness of how words can hurt, they did not expect many to respond.

They had made a video calling on students to submit notes on hurtful things others have said to them before.

“We emphasised that it was optional, and we thought that a lot of students wouldn’t be willing to share,” said Felicia Mah, the teacher in charge of Kranji Secondary’s peer support leaders. But 400 to 500 note cards were submitted.

Following the project, a Secondary Three student in her form class approached her. The student had noticed the number of notes relating to body image and volunteered to share her experience with anorexia, an eating disorder, with the student body.

Speaking over the public address system during morning assembly, she told her schoolmates what they could do if someone around them showed symptoms of the illness.

Urging them to be kinder, she said: “Your nasty words could’ve changed someone else’s life completely and definitely not in a good way … We should take care of our words and not be so reckless to say what we want.”

The impact of schools’ measures to boost mental health is not always tangible or measurable. But sometimes, as in this case, students send a clear signal that it has made a difference.

WATCH: Why children and teenagers struggle with mental health | Confronting youth mental health — Part 1/2 (24:04)

DESTIGMATISING GETTING HELP

More schools in Singapore are making efforts to get rid of taboos around seeking help for mental health.

Each of the three Institute of Technical Education (ITE) campuses, for example — which have 28,000 students in total — has eight counsellors, known as student care officers.

They introduce themselves to new students during orientation, and their contact details are available in classrooms, on the ITE website and through QR codes flashed on television screens on campus, said ITE student care officer Rachel Chung.

“We want to make sure the students know that the door is always open for them … be it for a small matter or huge one.”

Read Parts 1 and 2 — Youth Mental Health:

More youths seeking help with mental health – but finding it isn’t always easy

My child has depression, and I’m thankful for COVID-19: The mental health story for every parent

The officers also organise activities based on feedback from students and staff, added Chung, who is based in ITE College West.

For instance, after lecturers at ITE College West noticed some hospitality students worrying about career prospects amid the pandemic, the officers worked with their education and career guidance colleagues to present talks to first-year hospitality students — to brighten their outlook and tell them how they could apply their skill set.

Over at Crescent Girls’ School, meetings with the school counsellor need not be held in the counselling room but in the canteen instead or elsewhere in school, if students wish.

At secondary school, they are taught the CHEER model, among other things.

“Calm them down, hear them out, empathise with them, encourage them to seek help and refer them to a trusted adult,” said Kranji Secondary student Chiam Zhi Quan, explaining the acronym. “Normally … I only really need to do the first three steps.”

BUILDING TRUST

Schools say they regularly check in with peer supporters to ensure that they are well-supported.

At Crescent Girls’ — one of the pioneers in peer support, with a programme in place since 2018 — teachers initially nominated students as peer supporters. But around two years ago, it let students volunteer themselves and nominate others.

Besides wanting to be “enabling”, there is another benefit from this: Students trust those they have nominated and are willing to share their concerns and challenges with the peer supporters, said Kwok.

Clinical psychologist Joel Yang said the MOE’s peer support programme is probably still in its infancy, but the intent to train more youths as well as educators in skills like active listening is good.

“It’s really about normalising mental health,” he said.

This article by CNA Insider was done in partnership with Temasek Foundation and the Institute of Mental Health. Read Part 1 on how more youths are seeking help with mental health, but finding it isn’t always easy. Part 2 is the mental health story for every parent: My child has depression, and I’m thankful for COVID-19.

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