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Singapore

New inter-agency task force to develop national strategy for mental health beyond COVID-19 pandemic

SINGAPORE: A new inter-agency task force has been set up to oversee national efforts to promote mental health and well-being beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

It will be an expansion of the existing COVID-19 Mental Wellness Task Force (CoMWT), which was first convened by the Health Ministry (MOH) last October to tackle mental health needs arising from the global pandemic.

The new group, named the Interagency Taskforce on Mental Health and Well-being, will develop an “overarching” strategy for these issues and monitor the outcomes of efforts, said MOH on Monday (Aug 23).

The platform, chaired by Senior Minister of State for Health Janil Puthucheary, will also focus on “cross-cutting issues" that require multi- and inter-agency collaboration.

Other members include Social and Family Development Minister Masagos Zulkifli, and high-level representatives from the education, health and manpower ministries. There will also be academics and representatives from the public sector.

A key part of this group's role will be to implement three new recommendations, which were announced by the original task force on Monday following its review of the pandemic’s psychosocial impact on the population.

They will help tackle key issues that were identified as requiring “a whole-of-government approach to address”.

PANDEMIC’S IMPACT ON MENTAL WELL-BEING

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a “significant impact” on the mental well-being of different segments of the population, according to statistics cited by the CoMWT.

According to a study by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), about 13 per cent of a surveyed population between May 2020 and June 2021 reported experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Separately, mental well-being was a challenge for more than half of all youths polled by the National Youth Council in the second half of 2020.

As for older Singaporeans, another study showed that respondents reported a “stark increase in feelings of isolation” as the "circuit breaker" began last year.

CALLS FOR HELP

All this translated into higher usage of mental health services.

For instance, IMH’s helpline received 50 per cent more callers in 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. Concerns cited included anxiety over having to adjust to remote work, family friction and job insecurity, said MOH in a press release.

Meanwhile, the National CARE Hotline, which was launched to provide support for mental health concerns related to COVID-19, has handled more than 45,000 calls as of May this year.

While calls to this hotline have decreased since the circuit breaker period, the “relatively high volume of calls” to IMH’s helpline remains, noted the task force.

It added that more than 40 initiatives have been introduced or ramped up to help people deal with mental health concerns.

But there were still three key issues to address, it said.

GAPS IDENTIFIED AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Firstly, the need for an overarching whole-of-government strategy.

“Currently, a range of agencies play different roles in the mental health and well-being landscape,” it said. But an overarching strategy would “guide the alignment and track progress of efforts across the different agencies”, it noted.

The Government will engage the public on the development of this strategy through a public consultation next year.

ONE-STOP PORTAL FOR RESOURCES

The task force also noted that there are numerous online resources on mental health, which can be “confusing and overwhelming” for some.

Feedback has also revealed concerns over the currency, legitimacy and credibility of the information found on these resources, it said.

To that end, a one-stop online portal for national mental health resources will be created by the Health Promotion Board.

Content on this portal on HealthHub will be curated by experts, and will target individuals looking for information for themselves or their loved ones.

A pilot version will be rolled out in the later part of this year.

STANDARDISING TRAINING

Finally, as multiple agencies conduct training on mental health for different groups in the community, training curriculum must be standardised, it said.

The task force recommended establishing a national mental health competency framework, with a “common set of training standards and clearly defined degrees of competencies expected of professionals and para-professionals” supporting those with mental health conditions.

It added that agencies providing training have “begun work to map out their mental health training programmes according to the proposed framework”.

MOH said that it would act on these proposals, and the new inter-agency platform would oversee their implementation. It will also have to come up with indicators that would monitor the impact of these efforts.

Dr Puthucheary said: "We've started work already. We recently met to discuss several areas of focus for the coming months, especially how to build the mental resilience of our population.

"We look forward to engaging Singaporeans in this national important effort to enhance all of our health, mentally, and our well-being."

Source: CNA/cl

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