Speech by President Halimah Yacob at the First Global Summit for Mental Health Advocates

Professor Fatimah Lateef, Member of Parliament for Marine Parade GRC

Ms Ellen Lee, President, Silver Ribbon (Singapore)

Mr Anders Schroll, Vice President, Corporate Communication & Global Public Affairs, Lundbeck, Denmark

Dr Alberto Trimboli, President, World Federation for Mental Health, Argentina

 

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

 

I am pleased to attend this morning’s inaugural Global Summit for Mental Health Advocates. Mental Health is a subject close to my heart.

 

2          Let me begin by thanking Silver Ribbon (Singapore) for bringing together like-minded individuals from across the world to share best practices over the next two days. Mental health issues can affect anyone, regardless of background.  We need to work together to foster an environment that supports and empowers everyone to look after their mental health, as well as strengthen community-based services for those who may be affected by mental health issues. I am confident that this Summit will give all of us fresh perspectives and insights on how to do these better. It is heartening to see the overwhelming response for this Summit. This shows that many are keen to raise awareness of mental health, improve attitudes towards those with mental health issues and create a supportive community for them and their loved ones.

 

3          In 2015, because of its serious implications, the United Nations General Assembly included mental health in its Sustainable Development Agenda. Around one in four people will experience a mental health problem at some point in their life and, by 2020, the World Health Organisation estimates that mental health conditions will account for 15 per cent of cases of diseases in the world. Mental illness is also the biggest cause of lost economic output, with an estimated cost to the global economy of nearly US$2.5 trillion a year, which is expected to increase to US$6 trillion by 2030.

 

4          Singapore has been working hard to support those with mental health issues. In 2007, our Ministry of Health (MOH) launched the National Mental Health Blueprint to promote mental wellness by improving access to good quality, coordinated mental health services. MOH complemented the Blueprint with the Community Mental Health Masterplan in 2012, to place greater emphasis on building up community support for persons with mental illness. I am glad that good progress has been made in strengthening care for persons with mental health conditions and dementia in the primary care and community sector, including making services more accessible for them. We have also greatly increased our outreach and education efforts. The Agency for Integrated Care (AIC), which coordinates care and support for persons with mental health needs across health and social care sectors, has worked with social service partners to establish a network of 33 community outreach teams to reach out to persons at risk of depression or dementia. There could be other challenges they could be facing. They could be living in poverty or living with family members who are suffering from mental health conditions. Integrated care is important so they can receive the holistic support required. These teams provide mental health information and education to residents and their caregivers, basic emotional support, and linkage to appropriate services within the community. There are now a number of helplines run by the Institute of Mental Health and Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs) such as, the Singapore Association of Mental Health and the Caregivers’ Association of the Mentally Ill. Caregivers are also getting more support through the work of VWOs such as the Caregivers’ Alliance, which is dedicated to meeting the needs of families and caregivers of persons with mental illness. We very often do not realise the whole family is affected when a family member suffers from mental illness. This is a long-term battle. Very often, someone in the family has to give up working to care for the patient full-time. This often means a loss in income. Caregiving is not an easy responsibility. They need support so they do not end up having mental health issues themselves.

 

5          However, helping persons with mental health issues is still very much a work in progress, and one which requires greater support from stakeholders beyond the Government and the VWOs. There is still a very strong social stigma associated with mental conditions in many societies today. According to a National Council of Social Service (NCSS) Attitude Study in 2017, five in 10 respondents believe that persons with mental health conditions should not be given any responsibility, and more than five in 10 are also not willing to live with, live nearby or work with a person with mental health condition. Imagine the entire auditorium where we are seated and half of us not giving those with mental health conditions opportunities. Anecdotally, we know that some within our society continue to associate mental health conditions with violence or self-harm, although the fact is that there is a whole spectrum of mental health issues.  Many also use derogatory terms to refer to persons with mental health conditions, especially when reprimanding their children and inadvertently perpetuating misconceptions to our next generations. These acts unfortunately perpetuate the misconceptions that persons with mental health conditions are dangerous. Some employers are also reluctant to offer jobs to those with mental health issues, or delay their career advancement due to concerns over their ability to cope. All these actions have led to the reluctance of many to admit that they may have issues with their mental health, or to seek timely and appropriate help.

 

6          With early care and support from their loved ones, people with mental health issues can gain control over their conditions and are able to return to a productive role in society. According to an Institute of Mental Health study in 2012, an early psychosis intervention programme that focuses on the identification of persons’ strengths and empowering them to be active participants of their own recovery can lead to positive outcomes. Based on the study, about 75 percent of the persons in recovery returned to school or were gainfully employed upon discharge from the programme.  

 

7          This is why NCSS, in collaboration with the Institute of Mental Health and with support from community partners, has recently embarked on a “Beyond the Label” anti-stigma campaign.  The campaign seeks to encourage the public to go beyond the label of a mental health diagnosis, and instead recognises the resilience, strength and contributions of persons in recovery from mental health conditions. We can all play a part to go “Beyond the Label”.

 

8          Indeed, studies have shown that social inclusion is pivotal in kick-starting a virtuous recovery process for those with mental health issues.  According to the 2016 Quality of Life study conducted by the NCSS, persons with mental health conditions identified social inclusion as a key factor to improving quality of life and supporting sustainable recovery. When mental health patients feel that they can be part of the society, their self-esteem improves, often helping them better cope with their condition.  They become better able to meet other demands in life, such as in their workplaces.  This reduces the impediments they face at work and in the larger society, which in turn facilitates their reintegration into society.  It is therefore important that we, as a community, pay attention to how we can foster greater social inclusion for this group. People with severe mental health conditions require life-long medication. They need the financial means to do so and in order to do that, they need long-term employment.

 

9          One specific way that we can do so is to facilitate the skills-upgrading and capability building of persons with mental health conditions. Some of those with mental health conditions might find that their skills are no longer relevant after a long period of rehabilitation or recovery. We can help by supporting them in their reintegration into the workforce.

 

10        Earlier this year, I established a new “Empowering for Life Fund” (ELF) under the President’s Challenge (PC). PC comes under the auspices of the President’s Office to raise funds for beneficiaries each year. The ELF was introduced to provide support with a focus on enabling employment for vulnerable groups. I am pleased to note that the application process for ELF 2019 has started, and I would like to encourage more voluntary welfare organisations supporting persons with mental health conditions to tap on the fund.  We should leverage the fund to empower those with mental health conditions to return to the workplace, so that they can continue to contribute to the society and be meaningfully engaged. So if you have any ideas to help persons with mental health conditions, please make an effort to apply. I hope that companies will also respond to this call, and be more open to providing equal opportunities at work for this group.

 

11        To signal the importance of this support, I will designate mental health as the focal area of PC next year. PC 2019 will continue to support a broad range of social causes, but I hope that by placing more emphasis on persons with mental health issues, we can raise greater awareness of their needs and better support them in their journey of recovery and reintegration. Please make use of the resources available to help those with mental health conditions.

 

12        The theme for this Summit, “Unite for Mental Health”, sends a powerful message about the need for all stakeholders to work hand in hand, and to take practical steps to strengthen the social support for persons with mental health conditions as well as their caregivers. An important first step is to eradicate misconception and reduce societal stigmatism of persons with mental health conditions.  By promoting social inclusion, for example through employment, we can go a long way in helping them improve their quality of life and sustain their recovery.  So let us all work together, so that we can build a caring and inclusive society together.

 

13        Thank you and I wish you a fruitful summit ahead.