Commentary: Facing disrupted futures, Singapore’s youth must put their mental health first
Rather than neglect our mental health to arrive first in a race that never ends, let’s prioritise it so we can keep running this marathon, says Ng Chia Wee.
SINGAPORE: The first Singapore Mental Health Study, published in 2010, revealed that one in eight in Singapore had experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime.
Just six years later, that number had risen to one in seven.
These statistics have concerned many Singaporeans and forced us to reflect on the reasons behind the reported increase.
Concerns are likely highest among youths. Youth, after all, is the “peak period” where the majority of mental disorders emerge, according to Dr Swapna Verma from the Institute of Mental Health.
Mental health was also a top concern reflected in the 2018 Youth Conversation online poll, carried out by the National Youth Council.
In recent years, youth discourse on mental health has increased significantly, coupled with a greater awareness of World Mental Health Day, observed annually on Oct 10.
According to the World Health Organization, World Mental Health Day is observed with the main objective of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and shoring up efforts in support of mental health.
However, it is also a timely opportunity for youths like myself to reflect on our own mental health in the broader context of the challenges we face – in a world of disruption.
MENTAL HEALTH IN AN AGE OF DISRUPTION
The relationship between mental health and the notion of a disrupted future is not often explicitly discussed in-depth, but it should be.
As famed historian Yuval Noah Harari questioned in his bestseller 21 Lessons for the 21st Century:
Change is always stressful, and the hectic world of the early 21st century has produced a global epidemic of stress. As the volatility of the job market and of individual careers increase, would people be able to cope?
In the context of Singapore’s youth, some recent statistics may clue us in to this relationship.
Youths in Singapore are among the most pessimistic in Southeast Asia about the impact of technology on their employment prospects and earning potential according to a 2018 World Economic Forum, though this can be partially explained by higher education levels and age.
Separately, according to the latest available National Youth Survey (2016), “future uncertainty” ranked as the biggest source of stress among the youth surveyed; they were also not entirely confident about their own ability to respond to challenges.
These nascent statistics suggest that youths may not be coping as well as they should with the pressures of a disrupted future.
MENTAL HEALTH - NECESSITY OR LUXURY?
So what precise mental pressures does disruption bring?
Consider what psychologist Sara-Ann Lee wrote in a CNA commentary earlier this year: “Employees are encouraged to hustle and work relentlessly to strive for ‘more’, but this is a tantalising fiction; once reached, one inevitably finds that there is ‘even more’ to work towards.”
The pervasiveness of this sense of “never enough” is keenly felt by youths who have yet to enter the workforce.
If the future is so uncertain, you can never know if you’ve done enough to secure that disrupted future.
Indeed, “never enough” is something I see playing out among my peers, as they seek to juggle multiple commitments while keeping their grades up, sacrificing sleep and rest to secure a disrupted future.
While my generation is rightly concerned about mental health as an issue in and of itself, I would argue that there is still an ironic tendency for us to see our own individual mental health as a “good to have”, rather than a “must have”.
As we strive for success, we may still feel that self-care and rest is something which can be put off for some future time, without fully realising the detriment to our mental health.
And unfortunately, such a myopic view of mental health cannot be sustainable.
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MENTAL HEALTH FIRST
Indeed, such a view cannot be sustainable because this is only the beginning of our lifelong dance with disruption, something we may not have fully grasped.
Rather than neglect our mental health so we can come first in a race that never ends, it would be wiser to put our mental health first so we can keep running this marathon.
In this regard, I have three suggestions on how we can all chart a more mentally sustainable path and prioritise our mental wellbeing in an age of disruption.
First, if we have too much on our plate, the most logical response must to be to remove some of what’s on the plate, doing so in a gradual, responsible manner.
But, some may ask, with less to show for ourselves, will this affect future employability? Not quite.
In the future economy, employers look out for the ability to create, not just add, value.
But value-creation needs time and effort to hone specific skills and engage in deep learning for deep mastery. Focusing on a few manageable commitments in greater depth will paradoxically give us the time and space needed to do just that, possibly making us more employable.
Second, we need to shift from the mindset of “never enough” to a mindset of “good enough for now”.
Writing in the New York Times earlier this year, author Avram Alpert talks about the “good-enough life”, and how the desire for greatness can be an obstacle to our own potential.
But if “good enough” seems too much like “settling for less”, consider “good enough for now”.
This mindset suggests it is perfectly okay if we can’t do as much as others at the moment. In an age of disruption, teeming with disruptive openings, the future truly holds more opportunities for us to try again.
Third, individual efforts can only go so far without community support. It is in all our interests to actively participate in de-stigmatising mental disorders and talking about mental health, starting with friends and family.
Of course, there’s a lot more to the issue of mental health, and individual efforts to improve it must be complemented by feasible societal changes, such as re-looking at institutional arrangements which give rise to excessive competition.
But that’s another commentary for another day. For now, it would be sufficient to remember to put our mental health first to give ourselves the best chances to face a disrupted future.
Envisioning the decades ahead, I believe my generation can still make the best of disruption, and chart our own futures. But that’s only if we can put our mental health first.
Ng Chia Wee is a second-year student at the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and Tembusu College. He is also Director (Strategy) at Access Singapore, a ground-up organisation which seeks to provide mentorship and externship opportunities to less privileged students.