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Singapore

MOE to strengthen support networks in schools; all teachers to get enhanced training on mental health literacy

SINGAPORE: New measures will be rolled out in the “near term” to better care for the well-being of students in schools, said Education Minister Chan Chun Sing in Parliament on Tuesday (Jul 27).

These measures include giving all teachers “enhanced professional development” on mental health literacy as a baseline and deploying more teacher-counsellors in the next few years, said Mr Chan in a ministerial statement about the support given to schools and students in need.

It comes after the death of a Secondary 1 student at River Valley High School. A Secondary 4 student was arrested and charged with murder in connection with the incident.

In his statement, Mr Chan said youths are learning to cope with the pressures of a “competitive, high-performing environment”.

“For our youths growing up in today’s complex and fast paced world, their challenges are intensified by what happens online, where comparisons are incessant and unrelenting – adding yet another layer of social pressure,” he added.

READ: 540 River Valley High students, staff members sought psychological support after incident: Chan Chun Sing

Singapore must do “all we can” to help children “find their footing in an intense environment”, he added.

“Our approach should not only be to strengthen the overall system of support, but to engender a much more caring, much more nurturing environment in our society,” the minister said.

NEW MEASURES TO BE TAKEN

The Ministry of Education (MOE) will be undertaking several new measures in the near-term, said Mr Chan.

All teachers will receive enhanced professional development on mental health literacy “as a baseline”, to further strengthen teachers’ abilities to identify and support students in need.

In addition, MOE will aim to deploy more than 1,000 teacher-counsellors in the next few years, up from the more than 700 who are currently deployed in schools.

These are a group of teachers who have received additional training so they can help students who are dealing with more challenging social-emotional problems, such as grief and loss, said Mr Chan.

He added that currently, all schools have at least one school counsellor, while some have two.

“Where feasible, we will recruit more school counsellors or re-role suitable educators, to augment the counselling support network,” he said.

Co-curricular activities (CCAs) for secondary schools and pre-universities will be allowed to resume within the next few weeks, as more students complete their COVID-19 vaccinations, noted Mr Chan.

“These activities are avenues for our young people to build bonds, and to grow in a balanced way - emotionally, physically and psychologically. We plan to reinstate such activities in full as soon as the COVID-19 situation allows for it,” the minister told Parliament.

READ: Security measures in schools to continue to be updated in ‘targeted’ manner without affecting 'homeliness': Chan Chun Sing

Schools will also dedicate more time and attention to checking in on students’ well-being, he said.

From now on, teachers will devote time at the start of every school term to check in on their students’ well-being, and guide them on how, where and when to get help if needed. Schools currently have orientation programmes for new students at the start of the school year, he noted.

RELIEVING EXAM STRESS

The removal of Common Last Topics (CLT) will be extended to GCE O-, N- and A-level examinations this year. Last month, MOE announced the removal of CLT from the Primary School Leaving Examinations for 2021.

This is because the Delta variant of coronavirus has “created much greater disruptions than envisaged” and impacted students’ social and emotional well-being, with authorities “especially concerned” for graduating cohorts, said Mr Chan.

“While these topics would have already been taught in schools, removing them from the national examinations would help to relieve the revision load and exam stress for our students,” he added.

All schools will also reduce the scope for their end-of-year examinations this year to alleviate students’ revision load, said the minister.

He also noted current measures taken by MOE around students’ mental well-being. Social-emotional skills and resilience building “form the foundation of MOE’s mental health efforts” and have been part of the Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum.

READ: 'We cannot make sense of what happened': PM Lee offers condolences after River Valley High School death

This year, the revised CCE curriculum was implemented, starting with lower secondary levels. It includes enhanced features on mental health education.

“For example, they learn to differentiate normal stress from distress and mental illness, so that they can seek help before becoming overwhelmed,” said Mr Chan.

All schools have also been putting in place peer support systems to encourage students to look out for one another, said the minister, adding that teachers have also been keeping “a watchful eye” over students to provide a listening ear where needed.

He noted that when students need further help, they can see the school counsellors. If students need further intervention, school counsellors can also refer them to professionals, such as those in the Response, Early intervention and Assessment in Community Mental Health (REACH) teams or social service agencies.

WHOLE-OF-SOCIETY EFFORT NEEDED

The Education Minister said the mental well-being of Singapore’s youths requires “strengthening the continuum of support” across schools, families and the community.

The Health Ministry (MOH) and Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) have set up a new task force, which transited from the COVID-19 mental wellness task force.

Chaired by Senior Minister of State for Health Janil Puthucheary, the task force aims to develop an “overarching national strategy and action plan on mental health and well-being”, said Mr Chan. As a member of the task force, MOE will work with MOH and MSF to give focus to the youth segment.

READ: 'Schools need a lot more resources and support to help students with mental health issues': President Halimah

Mr Chan also stressed that a whole-of-society effort is needed to avoid “such tragic incidents” from happening again.

“We need a communal safety net, underpinned by a caring and nurturing culture, for all our people, especially our youths. So that collectively, we send them the unequivocal message that no one will ever be alone; and no one needs to go through life’s toughest moments alone,” he said.

He noted that community efforts around promoting mental health have been gaining momentum and expressed gratitude for the “overwhelming” outpouring of support in the wake of the incident at River Valley High School.

He urged members of the public to “look within our own social circles” and start there.

“Within our own families, we can all spend a bit more time listening to our children’s thoughts and feelings. Let them share with us what they find stressful. Give them the space to process their emotions,” he said.

“We can have more frank conversations with our children and families on the definition of success … Success cannot, should not and must not be the constant need to be compared with someone else and having to live up to someone else’s image.”

READ: 'You are not alone': President Halimah says help available for those affected by River Valley High death

He urged adults to set the “right tone and example” for children, by treating others with grace and compassion.

Mr Chan also added that MOE wants to strengthen its partnership with parent support groups in schools, and encouraged each group to form a sub-group focusing on the mental well-being of children and families.

“I appeal to everyone not to stigmatise those who come forward to seek help … Reaching out for help is a sign of strength, not weakness,” said the Education Minister.

“Let this incident motivate all of us to take down our barriers and treat struggling individuals who step forward with care and compassion.”

MPs RAISE SEVERAL CONCERNS

After the ministerial statement, MPs from both sides of the aisle raised numerous concerns in a session that lasted about 90 minutes.

Among the issues brought up was the stigma faced by those seeking help with their mental health.

For instance, Nominated MP Shahira Abdullah noted that students and teachers who wish to seek support may still be afraid to ask for help due to "entrenched stigma".

In response, Mr Chan emphasised that medical confidentiality will be respected for those who come forward, and that such information will "not be passed around to different agencies".

"Only in the exceptional cases where there is a real threat, agencies might then take actions to work with other agencies to pre-empt this," he said.

MP He Ting Ru (WP-Sengkang) also pointed out that mental health issues should not be equated with violence, a point that Mr Chan agreed with.

"Not every distressed individual is a violent individual. The distress can express in various forms ... So I think we all can help to spread this message."

Source: CNA/cl

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