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Speech by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Finance, at Samaritans of Singapore Symposium 2021 on 9 September 2021

09 Sep 2021
Distinguished guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

1. I am very happy to join you for the Samaritans Of Singapore (SOS)’s inaugural Symposium 2021. 

2. Let me start by expressing my thanks to all participants who have taken the time to join us for the next two and a half days. This is the largest symposium organised by SOS so far, with close to 600 local and overseas participants. 

3. And the theme for this year’s inaugural, bi-annual symposium— “Transitions: Harnessing Strength Amidst Uncertainties”— is timely, especially given the many challenges we face during this pandemic, and also the opportunities to harness our collective strengths and emerge stronger together. 

4. COVID-19 has had a far-reaching impact on all of us. For more than a year and a half, it has disrupted lives around the world.

5. All of us have faced increased stresses during this pandemic 

a. In a study conducted by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), it was found that about 13% of the surveyed population reported experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety over the period from May 2020 to Jun this year. 

b. Many of us may have personally felt, or seen amongst our close circles, a sense of fatigue and anxiety with our changed lifestyles and routines. 

6. What is of concern is also the heightened sense of distress felt by some. 

a. For example, the IMH helpline saw 50% more callers last year compared to the same period in 2019, with a peak in April 2020. This coincided with the start of the circuit breaker. 

b. Crises like the current pandemic exacerbate the already complex and multi-faceted issue of suicide ideation, which often involves family, social, and mental health issues. In Singapore, 452 deaths by suicide were reported in 2020, and that is a 13% increase from the year before. So this is a grave concern, because one suicide is one too many. 

7. We are making every effort to address the mental wellness issues that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore. 

8. And that is why we set up the COVID-19 Mental Wellness Taskforce in October last year to address the psychosocial impact of the pandemic. 

a. The Taskforce has completed a review of the current mental health landscape in Singapore, which includes the recent initiatives arising from the pandemic, and they have made several recommendations to address identified gaps.

b. The Taskforce has since transited into a new Interagency Taskforce on Mental Health & Well-being chaired by my colleague Senior Minister of State Janil Puthucheary to coordinate interagency efforts and to focus on cross-cutting issues.

9. We also established the National CARE Hotline in April last year, to provide psychological first aid to Singaporeans who were distressed by the effects the pandemic had brought to their lives. 

a. And we are deeply thankful for the many volunteers who have stepped up to man the hotline, and to Viriya Community Services, which took over the running of the Hotline in January this year. 

b. Since the hotline was established, it has handled over 45,000 calls. 

10. Beyond the pandemic, we are taking steps to improve overall mental wellness in our community. We have adopted a multi-pronged approach towards mental health, with initiatives in place across different settings. Let me highlight three key strategies. 

11. First, we are building capabilities to provide better psychological support for our people. 

a. This is one of the recommendations of the Taskforce

b. We are developing a one-stop online portal for national mental health resources, and establishing a national mental health competency framework. 

12. Second, we want to better understand the underlying factors contributing to poor mental well-being – so that we can design interventions that address the root causes and not just treat the symptoms.  

a. For example, one of the groups we are concerned about is our young Singaporeans, and we need to better understand, for example, the role that digital addiction or cyber-bullying plays in their mental wellbeing – it is an issue of growing concern in many countries.

b. This is also one of the reasons why we have tried our best to keep schools open during this pandemic – so that students will not feel too isolated, and will continue to maintain in-person interactions with their teachers and friends.  

13. Third, we are developing appropriate interventions for the various junctures of an individual’s life, to help and support those at-risk. 

a. For young people, we are equipping them to be more resilient, and putting in place systems to better identify signs of distress.

b. For example, we have trained teachers and staff to identify signs of distress in students, especially those who may be at-risk and silently suffering, and to provide support alongside counsellors. All schools are also putting in place a peer support network to encourage students to look out for one another. 

c. The Ministry of Education (MOE) has revised the Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum to include the strengthening of mental health literacy, and cyber wellness education. 

d. We are also promoting mental well-being at the population across different life stages. The Health Promotion Board has been conducting mental health workshops in schools, workplaces, and the community to equip individuals with emotional regulation and stress coping skills, and to increase their mental health awareness.

e. For seniors, we have a range of programmes and services. For example, we have staff and volunteers from the Silver Generation Office (SGO), as well as community partners from our eldercare centres who regularly reaching out to seniors, especially those living alone, or who are at risk of social isolation. 

f. More generally, we are working to improve and change public attitudes towards persons with mental health conditions. For example, the National Council of Social Service has launched the Beyond the Label (BTL) movement in 2018. This is a movement aimed at raising awareness and debunking stereotypes and stigma. 

14. We will continue to put in more resources to better meet the mental health needs of our population not just during this trying time of the pandemic, but on a sustained basis.

15. However, the Government can only do so much on its own. Importantly, the Government’s efforts will need to be complemented by partnerships with our community. 

a. And we are very grateful to all our community partners, charities, and Social Service Agencies, who have come forward and stepped up your support through this challenging period. 

b. I am also very heartened to see that community efforts have gained momentum. We launched the Youth Mental Well-being Network in February last year, and this has rallied over 1,500 youths, care givers, parents, and mental health professionals to better support youth mental well-being. And they are currently working on over 20 projects looking at important areas such as strengthening peer support, and increasing parents’ emotional literacy.  

c. Together, we will continue to build an inclusive and caring society where no one needs to struggle with their mental health challenges alone. 

16. At this juncture, let me also take this opportunity to thank everyone in SOS, staff and volunteers, for your many contributions in supporting the mental health needs of our population— both before and during this COVID-19 situation.

17. Because of your efforts, we have made, and will continue to make, significant progress as a society in safeguarding and enhancing mental well-being for our people.

18. To conclude, we are commemorating World Suicide Prevention Day on 10 September. Let this crisis be a reminder that we must continue to make every effort to engage topics like mental health and suicide prevention respectfully, responsibly and sensitively. 

a. It is only when we change mindsets on how we broach and tackle such topics, that we foster open and safe environments to share their experiences and seek help, that we can continue to make progress.

b. Many of you gathered here today are professionals or advocates for mental health – thank you for stepping up to the mantle and doing your part.

c. Each one of you has shown through your actions that the way we care and support one another is the bedrock of our society’s resilience and solidarity. 

d. It takes an entire community to help look out for one another, detect early warning signs of distress, and provide support and comfort to those who may be troubled. 

e. Whatever the challenge or transition may be, let us work together to actively steward and improve the mental well-being of our nation.

19. I look forward to the fruitful exchange of views and ideas from this symposium. Thank you very much.