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

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

Flowers are seen outside River Valley High School on Jul 20, 2021. (Photo: Tan Si Hui)

SINGAPORE: President Halimah Yacob on Friday (Jul 23) said that schools need greater resources and support to help students with mental health issues, after it emerged in court that the River Valley High School student charged with the murder of a fellow student had been referred to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) two years ago after a suicide attempt.

Madam Halimah also noted how parents, schools and society are "ill equipped" to deal with young people struggling with their mental health, as well as the " stereotype" against those with such issues.

Mdm Halimah's comments come after a 16-year-old boy was on Tuesday morning charged with murder over the death of a fellow student. The 13-year-old boy was found lying motionless in a school toilet with multiple wounds. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

It was revealed in court that the accused, who is a student in Secondary 4, was previously seen as a patient at IMH after an attempted suicide in 2019.

READ: Sec 4 student arrested over death of Sec 1 boy at River Valley High School

READ: Teenager charged with murdering fellow student at River Valley High School

“We mourn for the parents who lost their 13-year-old son … But one can’t help feeling sorry for the 16-year-old and his family too,” Mdm Halimah said in a Facebook post.

"Attempted suicides are a real cry for help. We don’t know the full details particularly whether he had continued to receive psychiatric help or medication in order to deal with his mental health after that episode.

"We also don’t know whether it was due to school or there are other factors affecting him as the causes of mental breakdowns are numerous and sometimes there are more than one factor at play."

She added: "We do know however that parents, schools and our society are ill equipped to deal with this situation."

For parents, she said, the great difficulty is not knowing whether the child is going through a growth phase "as all adolescents with growth hormones raging through their bodies sometimes act out", or is it because of something much deeper.

She added that for teachers already overloaded with work, it is not possible for them to "delve deeply" into the issues affecting one child as that would require close monitoring, observation and engagement.

While there are school counsellors, they may not be well-trained on issues affecting mental health, she said. 

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

Mdm Halimah said in her post that society too imposes high expectations on children, particularly on those who seem to be doing well academically.

"We expect to see a linear progression in their performance with no interruption whatsoever, like some well-oiled machinery," she said.

“Parents compare all the time. We often say that a well-developed, healthy child is better than a troubled child who (seems) to be shooting all As but is suffering, but we actually send different signals to them.”

Mdm Halimah said that the stigma associated with mental health may also cause parents to avoid seeking help for their children.

“There is still so much ignorance, stereotype and prejudice in our society against people with mental health issues that parents fear doing more harm than good to their children’s future by seeking treatment that they delay with disastrous consequences,” she said.

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

Mdm Halimah questioned if there were programmes to support students and their families, should a child with mental health issues require time off from school.

“Sometimes children with mental health issues may need some time off from school but the dilemma for parents is what to do with the child at home for a whole year, for instance, when the child is off school rehabilitating,” she said.

“Are there programmes to make it easier for parents to ensure that the child with mental health issues staying at home is meaningfully engaged and not just receiving psychiatric treatment or on medication only?”

Mdm Halimah suggested some solutions for schools moving forward.

“Schools need a lot more resources and support to help students with mental health issues,” she said.

“One way is for them to partner with social service agencies dealing with mental wellness, who could help to run programmes educating students on mental well-being.

“Some institutes of higher learning have also embedded programmes on mental health to support their students and are quite effective, which they can share with schools.

“We could also study the experience of other countries with more developed systems of support for our reference.”

READ: Coping with trauma: Acknowledge incident and talk about emotions, say experts after River Valley High death

READ: MOE and schools will continue to be 'vigilant' about campus security

Mdm Halimah said that everyone has a part to play in helping children with mental health issues.

“It takes a tragedy like this to start us thinking deeply again about the mental health of our young,” she said.

“Most of our children can cope, are resilient and will grow up well. But not all children are the same. Some do need more help and not just from the school but from everyone.”

Where to get help:

Samaritans of Singapore Hotline: 1800 221 4444

Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline: 6389 2222

Singapore Association of Mental Health Helpline: 1800 283 7019

You can also find a list of international helplines here. If someone you know is at immediate risk, call 24-hour emergency medical services.

Source: CNA/kg

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