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Young people face shortage of reliable accessible resources when seeking mental health help: Expert

SINGAPORE: Young people want to care for each other’s mental health, but are hampered in their efforts due to a shortage of reliable accessible information and resources.

While technology and social media are often negatively associated with mental health, they can actually help youths unwind and also be a source of relevant help, Professor Amanda Third, co-director of the Young and Resilient Research Centre at Western Sydney University, told CNA’s Asia Now on Tuesday (Oct 10).

She said that across the region, “young people themselves feel like they feel a great responsibility to look after each other and to support one another’s mental health, but they also feel very under-equipped to be able to do so”.

World Mental Health Day falls on Oct 10 annually, to raise awareness for mental health issues and mobilise efforts in support of mental health.

Prof Third said children and young people are facing increased pressures nowadays, from work and school-related matters to larger existential crises like the climate crisis.

“We have evidence to suggest that this is really seriously impacting young people’s capacity to hope for the future and to feel safe and secure. Their horizons of safety and security are drastically shortened,” she said.

Ms Ling Anne Hsieh, co-founder of Singapore non-profit organisation Project Green Ribbon, said stress, depression and anxiety are among the common problems faced by youth.

“A lot of them have unhealthy coping mechanisms (such as) substance abuse, self harm thoughts and ideation as well,” she told CNA’s Singapore Tonight on Tuesday.

STIGMA STILL REMAINS

Prof Third’s team had conducted a study on youth mental health in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Fiji.

Her research revealed that stigma towards mental health is still an “incredibly entrenched problem”, she said.

“Young people find it very hard to talk about mental health issues with their peers, their families and often with trusted adults in the community. So in light of that stigma, it’s really clear that young people would like anonymous, trustworthy modes of seeking support,” said Prof Third.

She called for greater investment in online youth mental health services, to ensure young people can get timely help when needed.

She said that the recent case of the 14-year-old Bangkok mall shooting suspect showed that despite the best efforts of mental health professionals across the region to provide young people timely and appropriate care when they need it, gaps still remain.

The suspected gunman had been receiving psychological treatment and had not taken his prescribed medication on the day of the shooting, according to police.

“Young people often bounce around inside the mental health system before they get a diagnosis, before they receive the proper treatment and care that they might need. So these are things that we really need to begin to pay close attention to,” said Prof Third.

TECH AND SOCIAL MEDIA FOR SUPPORT

Social media is another source of stress for young people, said Ms Ling.

“With social media, there’s a certain expectation that you want to actually live up to (and) a certain image you want to portray. That itself is really a very huge stress factor on its own,” she said.

With pressures from education and expectations from parents and families also in the mix, young people struggle with multiple sources of stress and need to be able to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy modes, said Ms Ling.

Singapore, in particular, has a high internet penetration rate and number of social media users, said Dr Ong Say How, senior consultant and chief of developmental psychiatry at the Institute of Mental Health.

“In a survey in 2018, up to 75 per cent of children aged eight to 12 are watching videos online, and up to 61 per cent are actually also playing games online and they could easily spend 35 hours a week on screen. That amounts to close to a week of school,” he told CNA’s Asia Tonight on Tuesday.

He noted that children who use social media without proper supervision and guidance are vulnerable to threats such as scammers and sex predators, while excessive screen time could also lead to a sedentary lifestyle with a lack of physical exercise.

Prof Third, however, noted that the use of technology and social media comes with a range of very clear benefits that have been well documented by research.

“One of the most important things that young people have told us in the study we’ve just done, is that technology gives them a really important way to relax and come back down to earth after a busy day, and to find a peace of mind,” she said.

“So a lot of the play and the fun that they take part in online is really important to their capacity to be resilient.”

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