The tragedy at River Valley High School last month sparked crucial conversations on mental health and how educational institutions can better support struggling students, with even President Halimah Yacob noting that parents, schools and Singaporeans in general are not well-equipped to care for youths struggling with mental health issues.
MOE is now looking into the implementation of measures to strengthen support networks for students, including professional mental health literacy training for teachers, increased deployment of teacher-counsellors and counsellors, as well as reducing the scope of examination content to reduce academic stress exacerbated by the pandemic.
What can we do to ensure that the worst does not happen to our loved ones?
Falling through the cracks
Ryan Ong is a 23-year-old university student who is dealing with the fallout of years of untreated depression and social anxiety. He didn’t have the social support network he needed then, and recently shared his story of how he fell through the cracks, in hopes of increasing awareness on the need for better mental healthcare and literacy.
When he was in secondary school a decade ago, he was incessantly bullied by his peers for how he looked and talked, especially with his then high-pitched voice.
They excluded him, called him names and bullied him online.
He tells The Pride: “I still remember their comments today, they said things like ‘We’ll show him who’s boss, we’ll crush him like an ant’.”
Due to these negative remarks, he skipped school frequently out of fear and anxiety. On days he attended lessons, he would not dare to participate in PE lessons nor eat in the canteen, staying in class during recess instead.
The accumulated stress from these incidents resulted in a vicious cycle of depression and social anxiety.
Ryan shares: “I think it’s a feedback loop — the bullying caused me to have depression, and my depression caused me to get bullied even further. The fact that I was different caused me to be ostracised, and me attempting to break out of that mould only caused me to be ostracised even more.”
Stigma, skeptics and suicide attempts
Even though he told his parents about his problems, they did not want to transfer him at first as his school was a reputable one. It was only when he was in Secondary 4 that they moved him to another school. His family believed that mental health issues did not exist and bringing his struggles to light could jeopardize his future.
He recounts: “They also thought that because I was a guy, I should learn to suffer.”
This stigma — particularly the toxic stereotype that boys should be tough and withstand all obstacles — prevented him from getting the support that Ryan believed he needed.
These incidents culminated in 2011, when he tried to drown himself. Over the next few years, he engaged in self-harm, overdosed and even tried to hang himself. He did try to find help in his own way — in school, he wrote an essay about suicide, including a very personal account of his own attempt to take his life.
Yet, Ryan says that when he shared his essay, his peers mocked him and his teacher singled him out and told the students not to write about suicide. It triggered a panic attack and he started crying, yet nobody attempted to comfort him.
“In that moment, I felt so very alone,” he says.
Isolation can be deadly
Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) chief executive Gasper Tan tells The Pride that youths with suicidal ideation may feel lonely and isolated when in crisis. A previous survey by SOS has shown that these youths prefer to speak to close friends rather than family about their mental health struggles.
He explains that this could be due to the perception that peers are more likely to relate to their issues and be less judgemental.
Gasper says: “For those who have suicide ideations, encountering someone with a lived suicidal experience and mental health struggle to share their stories with can allow them to feel less alone and may give them more hope towards their recovery journey.”
Unfortunately, Ryan lacked that peer support in his secondary school days.
Furthermore, he claims that his school dismissed the existence of mental health conditions, brushing off his concerns with remarks like “It’s all in the mind” and “There’s no such thing as depression”.
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He says that this environment made it difficult for him to feel that his struggles were being acknowledged.
For instance, Ryan recounts an incident when he felt uncomfortable attending a school talk. His teachers told him to go to the school hall anyway, and in his anxiety, he asked to see the school counsellor. However, his appeals were refused.
He says that he was put in a room by the school staff and that triggered an anxiety attack that caused him to call the police. When the school counsellor finally arrived, he says that instead of comforting him, she scolded him for causing trouble and making things difficult.
Subsequently, Ryan was diagnosed with gaming addiction — a misdiagnosis, he says.
He tells The Pride, “It’s not that gaming addiction causes depression, but usually people with depression tend to go towards gaming as a coping mechanism.”
He says that he is disappointed that the perpetuated misconception delayed his treatment. Now, Ryan says that his current psychologist has diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and he is getting the treatment he needs.
Finding the right people to believe in you
It was not an easy journey however. After secondary school, Ryan wanted to further his studies. It was only through memos from a doctor and a social worker that he was able to enter Singapore Polytechnic (SP).
Things did not miraculously change for the better. Ryan says that he still felt discriminated against, saying that people had the perception that a student like him with a mental health condition could only cause trouble.
However, all hope was not lost. To his surprise, Ryan excelled in his first semester and went on to maintain good grades at SP. He was also fortunate enough to meet a few teachers and peers who believed in his potential and served as a crucial social support network.
Eventually, he graduated with several awards and was one of the top performers in his cohort.
He tells The Pride, “When I got my 4.0 GPA, it was when I realised I had the power to rewrite my narrative.”
Rewriting the narrative
Ryan hopes that his story, along with others, can spark conversation and change in the way people look at those with mental health challenges.
He says: “Don’t wait for something to happen to take action, be proactive and empathetic.”
Ryan also hopes that parents discard misconceptions regarding mental health and not to be dismissive of their children’s struggles.
“Yes, Singapore is competitive and academic rigour is important, but if the rat race is going to cause your child to be unhappy, do you really want to risk that?”
As for schools, he acknowledges that it might be too much to expect overworked teachers to provide mental health support as well.
However, he stresses the importance of caring for students beyond performance metrics, and how teachers can be a crucial safety net for students exhibiting troubled behaviour.
Checking in with students who skip school can help them realise that someone still cares, especially if they lack a healthy home environment.
Talking about his own experiences, he tells The Pride, “When someone is trying to reach out for help, please don’t downplay it and dismiss their pleas for help. Don’t violate the trust that they have in you. It’s very easy to break it.”
Gasper from SOS echoes similar sentiments. He shares that destigmatizing suicide is vital in encouraging people to seek professional help. This can be implemented through more school-based efforts to screen students’ mental health as well as educational activities on the importance of mental wellness.
“When mental health is talked about more openly in the school setting with peers, it can contribute to fostering an environment where talking about mental health struggles is not shamed or judged. Creating this safe space for conversation is important so that it provides an outlet of expression for those in distress,” he says.
In addition, Gasper also advocates implementing suicide prevention programmes to train gatekeepers to better detect potential warning signs, so that they can intervene earlier during a mental health crisis. These gatekeepers can also minimise crisis situations to encourage students to be more open in sharing about their mental health struggles.
Gasper says: “Above all these, it is important to have a postvention plan for when a death occurs, those impacted by the loss of a loved one can be supported better by close members of the community.”
This was certainly salient during the aftermath of the RVHS tragedy.
The power of hope
Despite his hardships, Ryan is persevering and has even started a mental health collective.
Ryan tells The Pride, “I want others to have that hope. I still suffer from a lot of PTSD side effects. I want others to live happily without relying on willpower alone.”
He is one of the co-founders of The Catalyst, one of the winning entries in the MOE Ideathon titled “What’s Your Take — Youth Edition” that has been incorporated into the Youth Mental Well-being Network.
He is also looking into incubating the initiative at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), where he is studying now, as a start-up conduct workshops to impart essential literacy skills relating to mental wellness. These workshops would be free of charge for students and teachers, he says, and hopes to pioneer a pilot session in SUTD sometime in 2022.
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Furthermore, Ryan says he is in talks with SG Exams to host his own podcast on mental health, with the first episode due in Sept.
Ryan says, “I want to tap on the power of youth stories in order to change the narrative in Singapore’s mental health landscape.”
He hopes to create a network of youths across Singapore to lead mental health advocacy work, empowering them to write their own narrative and linking them with relevant groups to provide them with resources to make their mental health initiatives a reality.
To do better, we need hope to give us strength to hold more open conversations around mental health, destigmatize mental illnesses and provide the necessary support. It may be difficult to do so in the darkest of times, but Ryan is living proof that hope is never entirely lost.
He says: “What is hope but believing that we have the power to rewrite the current narrative and that things can get better?”