SINGAPORE: Depression, relationship issues, bullying, family problems – kids as young as five years old are seeking help for these problems.
Suicide prevention centre SOS told Channel NewsAsia last week that it received about 1,900 calls from those aged five to 19 last year – an increase of 70 per cent compared to 2012.
Another helpline Tinkle Friend, which caters to primary school students, saw a 50 per cent increase in the number of calls and messages on its online chat service from 2012 to 2016.
Some of the questions stemmed from boredom and loneliness - “What can I do when I’m bored?” or “How do I make more friends?” But some children in more distressing situations asked questions like: “What will happen to me after my parents get a divorce?”
PEER SUPPORT NETWORKS IN ALL SCHOOLS BY 2019
In 2015, teen suicides rose to a 15-year high, with 27 suicides in the 10 to 19 age group, according to SOS figures.
To help address the situation, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has announced it will roll out a slew of programmes – including a peer support scheme – as part of its NurtureSG recommendations.
In response to queries from Channel NewsAsia, MOE said the peer support programme will be expanded to all primary and secondary schools by the end of 2019. Training for school staff started in May and will be conducted in phases until 2019.
Under the programme, a couple of students – from seven to 17 years old – will be appointed from each class, depending on the school’s needs.
The students will keep a lookout for any signs of distress among their peers, and offer emotional support. For more serious cases, such as unexplained injuries – they will have to flag it to their teachers.
Taking the lead is Jiemin Primary School – which conducted its first training session for Primary 2 to Primary 5 students on Wednesday.
The school aims to train about 40 students each year. The students will be taught to spot signs in their classmates such as a change in appearance or habits, appetite loss, or constantly feeling sleepy in class.
Some of these students said the training has helped them to brush up on their social skills, such as approaching a friend who seems isolated.
“There are three students in my class who feel they are really dumb and nobody wants to be their friend. As I’m not that close to them, I never knew how to approach them and help them. But after this course, it has given me some confidence to encourage them to speak up,” said eight-year-old Muhammad Rayan.
Ten-year-old Angie Sia said: “I have this classmate who’s always angry and shouting. So, maybe next week, I will try to gently approach him and talk to him in a calm manner and find out what is exactly wrong with him and why is he always losing his temper.”
IS IT TOO MUCH FOR YOUNG KIDS TO TAKE ON THESE PROBLEMS?
In September last year, then-Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said in Parliament that it was “not reasonable” to expect teenagers to take crisis calls from their suicidal peers. This was in response to Member of Parliament Saktiandi Supaat, who asked if there was a need to set up a special hotline for teenagers that is manned by their peers trained in counselling.
Counselling such people requires relevant training, skills, emotional maturity and understanding of life's challenges, Mr Tan said.
As such, while the peer support programme is aimed at getting children to open up to other kids their age about their problems, serious cases will still have to be referred to their teachers.
However, this could get tricky in some situations, according to 10-year-old Marati Varshika.
When my friend tells me her problem but doesn’t want me to tell the teacher, she would definitely be angry if I reported the matter to my teacher.
"And this would break our trust and she might not share her problems with me in future,” she said.
Marati said she hopes teachers will coach students on how to deal with such situations.
To ensure that peer supporters are not overburdened, their teachers will meet them every fortnight to keep track of any problems they are facing.
Student peer supporters also have to meet strict criteria, including good management skills, resilience and the ability to take care of themselves during stressful situations.
Parents of the peer supporters are also informed of the duties and roles, and can opt out if they want to.
PEER SUPPORT PROGRAMME IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Child psychologist Associate Professor Daniel Fung from the Institute of Mental Health said the programme is timely given the worrying number of mental-related issues among younger people.
The initiative helps to provide another set of eyes to spot mental distress among students that may not have been picked up by the existing systems and processes, he said.
He also stressed that the programme is not about getting kids to take on the roles of counsellors but to help flag issues which adults may not be aware of.
As young people feel more comfortable to open up to their friends about their problems, those suffering from mental distress could be detected earlier and interventions can be put in place immediately.
Kids are so much more exposed to issues now than in the past – like sexual abuse.
"This programme is also beneficial as we are seeing more problem behaviours such as physical and emotional bullying in schools," said Assoc Prof Fung.
"Sometimes class sizes may be large, and teachers may miss out some problems. So this helps to give an additional set of eyes and watch out for problems,” he added.
Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
Institute of Mental Health’s mobile crisis service: 6389-2222
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800
Silver Ribbon: 6386-1928
Tinkle Friend (for primary school-aged children): 1800-274-4788