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With the increasing workload and stress levels, more adults are facing mental health challenges. Even as Singaporeans turn to binge-watching shows like South Korean hit thriller Squid Game, we are finding parallels between fantasy and reality.

Since the pandemic started, much has been written about adult mental well-being as we deal with WFH, quarantine worries and Covid fatigue. It is particularly fitting that October is Mental Health Awareness Month.

But what about younger Singaporeans?

Even as MOE announced that end-of-year exams will be cancelled for Primary 3 and 4 students, it is a small respite to the constant changes that are affecting kids and parents now.

Take the infamous “Helen and Ivan” question at last week’s PSLE Math exam that got some parents up in arms, complaining on social media that it was too difficult and stressed out their children. Quick-witted social media brands were fast to cash in commenting on the weighty problem but jokes aside, it didn’t really address the issue facing our kids.

Are they really so stressed and if so, are we doing enough to protect them?

HBL ‘must only be a last resort’

HBL Singapore
Image source: Shutterstock / Hananeko_Studio

In an announcement made earlier today (Oct 7), the ministry said: “MOE will progressively bring Primary 1 to 6 students back to school for face-to-face lessons from Monday (Oct 11), to ensure physical schooling resumes in a safe manner. This is in line with our approach to minimise prolonged HBL where possible, for the socio-emotional well-being of students.

HBL arrangements have not only affected parents but students as well.

Children learn best when they get to observe their surroundings, watching facial expressions and responding to voices. Not only that, in-person classroom learning teaches children socialisation skills. It’s hard to get that staring at a webcam and trying to pay attention to a screen.

As Education Minister Chan Chun Sing explained in a post on Facebook: “Not all children necessarily have conducive environments for HBL. Prolonged HBL can also negatively impact many students’ academic progress and socio-emotional well-being. HBL must thus only be a last resort, to be used in a targeted manner.”

While we have had a year to get all the HBL kinks out of the system, there is still a significant difference between studying in school and learning at home.

If adults are already having issues with WFH, wouldn’t children have it worse?

As National Institute of Education Senior Research Scientist Dr Anne Rifkin-Graboi explained: “While parents are supporting HBL, it is still important for them to fulfil their primary role as a parent outside designated learning time.

“Children look to parents for support, encouragement, play, nurturing, guidance, and empathy, especially when things are hard. Even if children are not showing it, this is a difficult time for them, and one that is entirely new.”

Internet connection issues at home (which is a bigger problem for the parents!), distractions from siblings, and other mundane interruptions can hamper them from learning to their fullest potential.

Children are emotional “sponges”

Children Mental Health
Image source: Shutterstock / TY Lim

When children are on HBL, parents have to juggle work and ensure that their children are learning.

This could lead to them offloading pent up frustrations and emotions on a child.

This in turn makes a child believe that they have done something to make their parents angry. Moreover, many parents dismiss their children’s concerns as complaining or whining, or even laziness or recalcitrance.

Children are just like sponges; they “absorb” what they see, hear, feel and touch. And while they might not always show it, they also pick up on emotions too.

While our children may be too young to fully understand the dangers of Covid, the increase in the number of new daily cases have rattled Singaporeans, parents especially, and this fear can be contagious.

All these issues can become a vicious cycle, ultimately affecting the child’s mental well-being in the long run.

This week, the United Nations Children’s Fund released a study titled “The State of the World’s Children 2021”, which quotes Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore as saying that the mental health issues that face children all over the world is “just the tip of the iceberg”.

She adds: “It has been a long, long 18 months for all of us — especially children. With nationwide lockdowns and pandemic-related movement restrictions, children have spent indelible years of their lives away from family, friends, classrooms, play — key elements of childhood itself.”

In Singapore, adolescents have been speaking up, telling the Straits Times that they can’t find a safe space to talk about their problems. And we were given a tragic reminder of how serious such mental wellness issues can get when a boy was killed by a fellow schoolmate at River Valley High School in July.

Thoughts of doing badly in school haunted me

Children Mental Health
Image source: Shutterstock / ANURAK PONGPATIMET

As the eldest child, I have always had thoughts like “I’m not enough”, “they are angry because of me again. Maybe I should disappear so that they can be happy”, or simply “am I a burden?”

These thoughts haunted me growing up as I constantly believed that I was underperforming in primary school.

In my teens, these self-doubts haunted me and sapped my confidence. I would overthink the consequences of my actions and constantly worried about what people thought of me.

I couldn’t even confide in my loved ones as I felt that I was burdening them.

When I finally picked up the courage to talk to someone, instead of getting the reassurance or solutions I needed, I often ended up with questions and comments like “you’re too young to be thinking negatively”.

Coming from a conservative Chinese family, talking about mentally wellness was taboo, especially to the elders.

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In the end, I kept my thoughts to myself and suffered in silence. Thankfully, things got better after secondary school. I made friends who I could confide in without being judged or questioned — they are still listening to my problems today!

I still remember the immense sense of relief when I finally found people who understood me.

Last month, IMH released a report stating that “1 in 13 adults in Singapore had thought about suicide at some point in their lives”.

While startling, what jolted me even more was a comment by the lead researcher, Dr Ganesh Kudva, who said: “The association of suicidality with younger age is notable, especially given that suicide is the leading cause of death amongst those aged 10 to 29 in Singapore.”

President Halimah Yacob said in December last year that it is important to prepare young people to deal with mental health conditions. She reiterated that call when the RVHS tragedy occured.

Even as MOE takes steps to reduce pressure on students, a mindset change towards their grades is just as important.

While the authorities improve public education and mental health literacy for children and youths, parents have to do their part to reassure and support their children too.

How to spot the signs

Here are some signs that may determine whether if a child is facing mental wellness issues:

  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain
  • Loss of concentration in school
  • Loss of interest in daily activities
  • Loss of appetite
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Difficulty going to sleep and staying asleep
  • Persistent sadness
  • Avoiding social interactions
  • Excessive paranoia or anxiety

A child facing mental issues would have had such symptoms for a while, from as short as two weeks to six months. It is normal if some of these symptoms occur during exams, as these are periods of greater stress. But if these persist or worsen after the exams; parents should consider getting professional help.

On your own, try using these guidelines when talking to your children

  • Be open minded. This builds a safe space for a child to share their feelings.
  • Avoid sarcasm and be sympathetic while listening.
  • Keep calm.
  • Normalise mental health issues by comparing it with physical illnesses: Wounds heal, so mental health issues can also be cured.
  • Instead of getting your child to acknowledge their feelings, start the conversation by talking about your feelings first.

Lastly, as it is Children’s Day tomorrow, take some time off work and spend time with your kids! Give them a hug, a snack or words of affirmations like “You’ve done great today”, “I am proud of you, thank you for being strong”, or simply “I love you”.

You might be surprised how much these simple words mean to them.

Helplines:
• National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868 (8am – 12am)
• Institute of Mental Health’s Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222 (24 hours)
• Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444 (24 hours) /1-767 (24 hours)
• Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
• Silver Ribbon Singapore: 6386-1928
• Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788 and www.tinklefriend.sg

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