For a long time, mental health was a topic largely avoided and misunderstood . No longer, as the Youth Mental Well-being Network works to raise awareness and empower young Singaporeans to manage their mental struggles and garner support from their peers.
One of more than 20 Singapore Together Alliances for Action (AfAs) — announced as part of the Singapore Together movement, launched two years ago to involve Singaporeans more deeply in nation building — the Network has over 1,500 members.
They comprise youth, parents, mental health professionals and government representatives who have worked on about 20 projects to date.
As we mark the second anniversary of Singapore Together this month, three young Singaporeans in the AfA share about their projects, which adopt a by-youth-for-youth approach, and what motivates them.
Shattered by friend’s suicide, he comes up with a guide
After losing a buddy he met in National Service to suicide earlier this year, Mr Shawn Tilakan, 27, was at a complete loss.
“I found out about it on Facebook and I was so shocked, I just broke down,” he says, with a deep frown. “Around the time it happened, another teammate also lost a friend — her second friend to suicide.”
While grief-stricken, the suicides strengthened their resolve to help others with similar struggles through an initiative called Project It’ll Be Alright.
The project, under the Youth Mental Well-being Network, was set up by Mr Tilakan’s friend Edward Lim to create a community resource and help youth in need.
Its members were mentored by Minister of State for Education and Social and Family Development Sun Xueling, who provided advice and connected them to resources and partners like the Ministry of Education (MOE).
One of the group’s main goals is to gather stories from secondary and tertiary students and young working adults who have experienced mental health struggles. These stories will be compiled into an e-book for youth, with advice from healthcare professionals, to assure them that they are not alone and inspire them to overcome similar hardships.
So far, the team has collected around 100 stories — half their target number — with hopes of launching the e-book by mid-July alongside an art exhibition.
Of these, one real-life account of a former drug addict, now in his mid-20s, struck a chord with Mr Tilakan. The former addict was sent to the Singapore Armed Forces’ detention barracks for taking drugs while serving NS and struggled to end his addiction.
“I found it very interesting that, to turn his life around, he did a lot of research on addiction, and managed to convert those energies into cultivating fitness and other good habits.”
Listening to people’s problems is not new to Mr Tilakan. The AfA volunteer, who works as a crime analyst, says: “Growing up, I was always sort of an unofficial counsellor to my friends. The idea that I could make a difference was very inspiring.”
He adds: “We are the next generation taking Singapore forward. Some people may look successful and well-adjusted in life and you wouldn’t expect them to have problems but they do.”
Why do he and his teammates think they can help? “We’ve all had our share of battles with mental health and want to let our peers know that they are not alone.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help if you need to. It may seem like weakness but the people who love you won’t know what is happening to you otherwise.”
Having experienced despair, she now helps parents, kids prepare
Ms Francesca Wah, 29, knows how a little help can go a long way, having come from an underprivileged background.
A child of a school bus driver and housewife, she depended on financial aid programmes to pay for her education. And while she struggled to do well in school, she eventually earned a scholarship to study at the National University of Singapore (NUS) through the support and guidance of her teachers. She credits them for helping to “turn her life around”.
Now she’s paying it forward by helping the less fortunate, including families in rental flats through her non-profit organisation Bringing Love to Every Single Soul (Bless) since 2014.
Joining the Youth Mental Well-being Network was a natural next step for the educator. “I joined the Network to meet other like-minded and passionate individuals and exchange ideas with them to create a collective impact on society,” she says.
Ms Wah, who holds a master’s degree in social work, has always been interested in children and youth development work.
As a convenor in the Network, she led a number of engagement sessions on issues that young Singaporeans face and was keen to lead an initiative to support the mental well-being of at-risk youth. Convenors are members who facilitate and lead preliminary ideas and initiatives in AfAs.
This led to the birth of Driving Resilience and Inspiration for The Incredible Next Generation (Drifting), an outreach programme that hopes to provide social and emotional support for at-risk adolescents aged 10 to 12.
“We aim to develop a network of social support to help improve their social and emotional behaviour. This will also develop self-confidence and help them bounce back from failure,” she shares.
Through a series of discussions starting last July, the 13-member core team came up with a six-month mentorship programme that will teach kids to embrace challenges, build healthy relationships and experience success through activities such as fishing, cycling, nature and art. The activities were developed based on feedback from young Singaporeans and mental health professionals.
The team also plans to leverage informal community touch points, such as bicycle shops and provision shops.
Why target at-risk youth? Ms Wah explains that pre-teens may seek more independence and begin to drift from their parents at a time when they are undergoing many physical, emotional and social changes. This places those who come from households which lack parental guidance or attention at greater risk of going astray.
Through the programme, which is scheduled to start by the end of the year, Ms Wah hopes to instil values such as responsibility and commitment and help channel their energies toward developing new skills and self-expression.
To ensure that the activities resonate with the participants, her team plans to have former youth-at-risk join them as mentors and positive role models for younger children. They will also reach out to government agencies, social service agencies and family service centres to get referrals for youth who could benefit from Drifting.
Says Ms Wah: “We all share the same heartbeat for the future of Singapore and we can actively choose to invest our time to lift others.”
Legal eagle helps mental wellness take flight
How many among the young can say they are comfortable discussing their feelings with their parents? This is a question that Mr Allen Sng, 28, takes to heart.
His growing-up years were not easy. After his father lost all his savings in a business deal gone bad, his family spent many years trying to pay off their debts. At one point, they even sold off their Housing Board flat to settle some of their dues.
As a child, he says he was not always able to properly express his emotions and concerns. “Like most traditional Asian families, I didn’t know how to talk about my emotions with my family,” he says.
Many families may find it hard to show their emotions, he continues, but it is crucial that they keep communication lines open, “especially for kids who may not understand what they feel or how to cope with negative emotions”.
He hopes to help youth embrace their feelings through his project with the Youth Mental Well-being Network.
As a convenor in the AfA, he is working with two other members on a guidebook that aims to equip parents with the skills to help their children develop emotional resilience.
A Sheridan Fellow at NUS Law, Mr Sng also runs a pro bono project helping parents of children with intellectual disabilities apply to be their kids’ deputies. A deputy is appointed by the court to make certain decisions on behalf of a person who lacks the mental capacity to do so.
He first learnt about the Network on Facebook. The idea for the guidebook came about from a series of engagement sessions that he facilitated. The team discovered during the sessions that a key concern was a lack of openness among youth and parents in Singapore.
To help equip parents with emotional literacy — a term that refers to the ability to express and communicate one’s emotions and feelings — the book will have tips from psychologists and counsellors on how to identify common stressors among kids. Some stressors include online bullying and school-to-work transition.
The team aims to launch the first batch of books for parents of primary school children by the end of the year. Following this, they aim to produce guides for parents of youth in other stages of life — from their teenage years to tertiary life and beyond. They hope to work with MOE and relevant agencies like Family Service Centres to distribute the guides.
While they gear up for the launch of the book, Mr Sng is also ticking off new milestones in his personal life. He recently received a scholarship to pursue a Master of Science in Law and Finance at the University of Oxford later this year.
Despite his packed schedule and the challenges that studying abroad will pose, he hopes to continue helping young Singaporeans adapt to adversity. One of his greatest motivations is to pass on the help that he received in his formative years, especially from his parents who spared no effort in providing for him despite their financial struggles.
“You never know when the help you’re giving someone can actually be a lifeline for them.”
Interested in supporting the mental health of young Singaporeans? Join the Youth Mental Well-being Network to make a change.
Have a question about the Youth Mental Well-being Network or Singapore Together? E-mail your questions to askST@sph.com.sg
This is the first of a four-part series in partnership with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.