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Commentary: It’s never too early to seek counselling or therapy

SINGAPORE: Charmaine* and Tom* have been arguing over how he meets his buddies for drinks after work. From her perspective, he complains about being too tired to chat with her but somehow has the energy to hang out with his friends.

Charmaine feels helpless and hopeless about how little they communicate and is seriously considering divorce. 

When she asks him to go for counselling, he dismisses counselling as simply talking that won’t change anything. Why would he waste his time talking to a stranger who doesn’t understand his marriage?

Stories like Charmaine and Tom’s may seem familiar. Individuals often consider counselling only as a last resort, after they have failed to resolve problems on their own or when problems affect their work or relationships. 

COVID-19 has forced families to be together for long hours, exacerbating tensions that might have lurked beneath the surface. The past two years have seen rising numbers of divorce applications and reports of family violence

There’s actually been a spike in the number of people in Singapore seeking counselling over the pandemic – to the extent that counsellors and social workers are facing burnout

But do we only seek help when we are close to breaking point, when push comes to shove?


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It might have something to do with the social stigma long associated with counselling – it tends to be seen as for people who are unable to manage their own emotions, suffer after a traumatic event, or have serious mental health concerns. According to one study, 47 per cent of Americans believe that seeking therapy is a sign of weakness.

If we thought about our physical health in the same way, is it a sign of weakness to see a doctor when we are unwell or to consider medical treatment only at the brink of collapse? Is it a bad idea to seek our doctor’s advice about trying to lose weight to stave off diabetes?

By the time clients show up in my office, a small issue may have snowballed into a major crisis. 

It could start as an argument about who is responsible for bringing the trash out. Over time, other “problematic” behaviours – who seems to always leave out dirty dishes, who comes home late more often – blur into a larger problem where one partner feels disrespected and expected to take on a disproportionate share of household responsibilities.

Perhaps it’s time to look at counselling as a form of preventive or supportive care too, rather than purely remedial. If conducted before problems fester, counselling can build up mental resilience and possibly avert interpersonal crises. 

Counselling in such circumstances tends to prioritise problem-solving and managing its impact on our lives.

MSF launched a new alliance to boost Singapore marriages and strengthen family ties amid COVID-19, such as through marriage preparation and parenting support programmes. These are provided free of charge or at a small nominal fee.

Another MSF initiative is Strengthening Families Programme@Family Service Centres (FAM@FSC), which provides services and support to couples and families with early risks and stressors. Trained counsellors, family therapists and social workers at these centres provide counselling for couples and families for free. This service will be provided at 10 locations in Singapore by the end of 2022. 


Poor familial relationships take a heavy toll on individuals. A 2012 study on 1,026 married workers in Singapore showed that marital distress was a significant predictor of depressive symptoms, health and work satisfaction.

The results also suggested that marriage-to-work spill-over is real and costly for society. The loss of work productivity due to marital distress has been estimated at nearly US$6.8 billion annually in the United States. 

Families remain the closest support system for many in Singapore. Preventive counselling and therapy can enable families in Singapore to support each other better and build strength to weather crises like COVID-19 again in the future.

*Names used in this commentary are pseudonyms.

Yeow Ming Zhen is a social worker who works with couples, families and children, and is currently the Head of Strengthening Families Programme@Family Service Centre at Methodist Welfare Services.


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