Commentary: Breaking Down Barriers for Youth Seeking Help

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Commentary: Breaking Down Barriers for Youth Seeking Help

What a child needs to access mental health first aid

By Chan Swee Fen | 27 October 2021

During the recent Tokyo 2020 Olympics Games, my attention was riveted on the 100m Women’s hurdles semi-finals event. At the sound of the gun, all the athletes did their utmost to jump over hurdle after hurdle in a bid to cross the finish line and secure a spot in the Olympic finals.

The competition was intense and at the sixth hurdle, the Jamaican athlete in Lane 6 lost control while trying to cross the hurdle and fell flat on the track. At the same time, the Hungarian athlete in Lane 9 crashed into the hurdle. The pain and disappointment of both athletes were beyond words. The Hungarian athlete promptly picked herself up and walked over to the Jamaican athlete, with an outstretched hand. They both walked toward the side-lines.

When it comes to the topic of mental health, there are a number of hurdles that stand between children and youth, and the help they need.

A case in point is the recent River Valley High School tragedy where a 16-year-old was charged for the murder of a 13-year-old. This heart-wrenching incident has placed the topic of mental health firmly back into public discourse.

It may be time to re-examine the barriers that prevent youths from seeking the help they need to address their emotional difficulties, and adopt a community approach to tackling youth mental health issues.

What barriers do our youths face in seeking help?

  1. Hurdle #1 Stigma and Stigmatising beliefs
    Youth are still hesitant to seek professional help for mental issues due to the fear of being judged. Unhelpful and unkind labels like "mental case," "crazy" or "mind short-circuit" are often used and beliefs such as, "Help-seeking is a sign of weakness" often exacerbates the emotional turmoil that these youths are already experiencing.

    "Life and death are in the power of the tongue." — a proverb

    They are also afraid of being singled out in school. I have met a few youths who are uncomfortable seeing a school counsellor for fear of being teased or mocked at by their peers and teachers.

    Some parents may also worry that their child will face discrimination in school or their child’s future employment or educational prospects will be impacted.
  2. Hurdle #2 Poor mental health literacy
    Youth experiencing mental health challenges may have difficulty recognising when the struggles they’re facing fall beyond the normal threshold of stress.

    Some may think that just because they are performing well academically, they are okay, failing to recognise the subtle signs of burnout or depression. This misguided thinking is sometimes reinforced by parents who may downplay the symptoms of a mental health disorder.

    It is also not uncommon to hear parents dismiss their child’s anger outburst, anxiety, or misbehaviour as “just teenage angst” or “just a phase.”
  3. Hurdle #3 Fear of parents finding out
    Regardless of how the message is communicated to them, many youths believe that seeking help for mental health challenges will bring embarrassment to the family. And the fear of their parents’ emotional reaction often results in them hiding their emotional difficulties.

    Additionally, some parents may actively contribute to the youth’s emotional struggles. This is one big hurdle that deters help-seeking behaviours.
  4. Hurdle #4 Lack of trust and confidentiality
    Another major concern is a lack of trust in the source of help. The fear that their confidentiality will be breached and the potential outcome of being judged by peers or teachers is very palpable.

How can we remove the barriers and encourage help-seeking behaviours?

  1. Destigmatise mental health challenges and issues
    As a society, we need a mindset shift about mental health struggles.

    "Reaching out for help is a sign of strength, not weakness" — Education Minister Chan Chun Sing

    This belief is echoed by Education Minister Chan Chun Sing when he gave a clarion call to the public not to stigmatise those stepping forward for help in the wake of the River Valley High School incident.

    As a society, we can help one another do better by reducing stigmatising labels especially in schools or higher institutions of learning.
  2. Normalise mental health conversations
    People are generally unabashed when talking about going for physical health checks, or sharing about how they keep fit.

    Perhaps we need to approach mental hygiene as we would approach physical hygiene. We could make mental health conversations a part of our daily life.

    We shouldn’t go so far as to glamourise mental health challenges, but we do need to make it a subject that our children can bring up without fear of being mocked at or scolded.

    We can also start conversations on mental health with our children at an early age.

    Stress is a normal part of life and learning adaptive ways to cope with it will reduce the risk of developing serious mental health issues.

  3. Equip ourselves on mental health issues
    We play a pivotal role in our children’s mental wellbeing.

    When we show unconditional love and unwavering support to them – even in the face of a mental health struggle, it is more likely our children will step forward to seek help when the need arises.

    If your child is in therapy, you need to be an active participant in their emotional healing. Cooperating with your child’s therapist or mental health practitioner, providing a stable and safe family environment, and exercising patience are all significant steps you can take in the journey towards restoration.
  4. Equip children with adaptive coping skills
    While it is important to protect our children from trauma such as bullying and abuse, we cannot shield them from experiencing stress. Stress is a normal part of life and learning adaptive ways to cope with it will reduce the risk of developing serious mental health issues.

    Schools can expend more resources and invest in building the resilience quotient of our next generation.

    It is praiseworthy that mental health will be part of the new CCE curriculum in secondary schools, as shared by Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah during her ministry’s Committee of Supply debate.

    Protecting the time and space for teachers and educators to engage and equip the students during these times is crucial.

Our children and youth are our future leaders and contributing members in society. They are our precious assets. As they progress in their academic journeys, they will face setbacks and challenges, with some buckling under the stresses of a rigorous education.

Mental health is a complex issue. A child or youth is a person-in-community and their mental wellbeing is not a purely a personal issue but is intricately connected to the community they are in. Thus, we need all hands-on deck, namely, schools, parents, society and communities to tackle this multi-faceted phenomenon.

As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child”; so it is imperative to adopt a society-wide approach and efforts to clear away the roadblocks and find solutions to help our next generation grow their mental resilience.

 

© 2021 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.

 

Swee Fen is an ordinary woman who desires to inspire others to make an extra-ordinary impact through her family life and life skills workshops, counselling training sessions and writing.

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