Fighting the stigma of mental disorders

25 Feb 2019

By Krishveen Kaur


During the Advancing Research to Eliminate Mental Illness Stigma (ARTEMIS) talk held in NTU early this month, Ms Shazana Shahwan, a researcher at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), pointed out the need to overcome the misconceptions associated with depression and mental disorders in general.

ARTEMIS is an NTU research study conducted in collaboration with IMH, aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of an anti-stigma talk on mental disorders for NTU students.

This is the first such study that solely targets the NTU population.

Students who are willing to participate in this study have to do a pre-talk questionnaire, attend the ARTEMIS anti-stigma talk and complete two more post-talk questionnaires to assess the lasting impact of the talk. The talks were held in February and research on their impact is ongoing.

“Depression is more than just the blues,” said Ms Shazana, who specialises in clinical psychology. A local mental health study conducted by IMH in 2016 highlighted that nine per cent of the local population aged between 18 to 34 suffered from depression at some point in their lives.

But among these youths, only 20 per cent would come forward to seek help.

Said Ms Shazana: “This is due to certain biases that still exist. Society tends to say things such as ‘these people are mad’, and ‘they will never get better’.

This may prevent people who show symptoms of mental illnesses from seeking help due to the fear of being diagnosed. And as a result, they suffer in silence,” she added.

Through the questionnaire provided before and after the ARTEMIS talk, students were able to reflect on their personal biases of mental disorders and its interventions.

“The questions are the same in the pre- and post-talk questionnaires so we can assess if students learnt anything from the talk,” said Ms Shazana.

Professor Anthony Kwok, the principal investigator of this study and Associate Provost of Student Life, said: “By introducing these kinds of informative talks, we hope that students gain more courage to seek help from someone.”

Stigma of mental disorders

In 2014, a group of final-year students from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information launched a campaign titled Embrace(D) to raise awareness on common mental disorders among young adults, such as depression, or as it is medically known, Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).

In their campaign report, the students mentioned that depression is still a taboo topic, especially among youths.

It is also not a topic commonly read up by youths online. The team surveyed close to 400 youths, aged between 18 to 25, and found that 70 per cent of them had responded ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ to the statement: “If they had depression, most would not tell anyone.”

Eunice Goh, 27, a member of Embrace(D) who graduated in 2015, believes that counselling can be an important psychological intervention for youths who might be susceptible to mental disorders or face emotional stress in general.

“Our campaign highlighted the importance of talk therapy through counselling in order to build a community of caretakers and make mental disorders less of a taboo topic,” she said.

“I guess counselling in school is sort of an in-between? Less daunting than a professional medical practitioner, and intimate and personal enough to form a true bond and friendship.”

Building a community of support

The University Wellbeing Centre (UWC) says it encourages students to seek help through its counselling services.

One of its initiatives is NTU’s Peer Helping Programme.

Peer helpers, who are NTU students, are trained by the counsellors at the UWC to provide emotional support for students.

A former peer helper, who wanted to be known only as Lee, shared their attempts to “build rapport within their social circles and provide them with a confidante that they need”.

Lee said that first-year students usually experience anxiety in adapting to a new environment, while the second and third-year students tend to face academic-related problems.

He said: “The peer helpers gather in groups of 10 where we share what we encountered and provide input on how we could have dealt with the situation better.”

“Through the training we learned to maintain professionalism by asking the right questions so that those who need our help won’t shun us.

“A question to ask is, ‘Are you eating and sleeping well?’ while a question to avoid is ‘What do you have to be depressed about?’,” he added.

Lee believes that one of the biggest challenges faced by peer helpers would be getting the students to take that first step to call the UWC.

“It is as if they have an affliction. The student might be afraid of people perceiving them as mentally unstable,” said Lee.

Avenues to seek help

But for people like NTU student, Josh (not his real name), reaching out to the UWC was a natural choice.

He chose not to seek help from professional institutions outside of school as he felt that his problems were related to school and studies.

Josh went for eight counselling sessions at the centre and was pleased with the look and feel of the place.

“They had a nice waterfall and the counselling room was minimally decorated. I like that the chairs were comfortable and there were tissues if you needed to cry,” he said.

But he did not tell his peers or family members that he went for counselling sessions as he feared being misunderstood.

Another student, Ashley (not her real name), believes that counselling is helping her deal with her emotional stress.

Ashley is still attending weekly counselling sessions and is keen on continuing her sessions until she graduates.

“I think maybe people expect that they go in and their problems get solved. My counsellor does not tell me what to do.

“She gives me a template worksheet to constantly question why I feel this way and now I have the tools to deal with my emotions.”

Professor Kwok, the principal investigator of this study, believes that there are many available venues for students to seek help.

“I like to describe it as a ‘no wrong door’ policy. If you knock on the counselling door but for some reason that door is difficult to knock on, you can knock on another door which is the peer helper door. Or the Faculty-in-Residence (FiRs) door, for those staying on campus,” said Professor Kwok.

“I am very proud to say that in NTU, when students reach out for help, it almost always leads to a better outcome than if the student did not reach out at all,” he added.

Students may also reach out to pastoral care staff located at their faculties, as well as their Associate Chairs (Students) at the respective schools, and hall officers, FiRs and residential mentors at the Halls of Residence for help.

Useful hotlines

Counselling helpline - University Wellbeing Centre (UWC)
6790 4462
6338 3383 (after office hours)

24-Hour Hotline - Samaritans of Singapore (SOS)
1800 221 4444

Mental Health Helpline - Institute of Mental Health (IMH)
6389 2222

Women’s Helpline - Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware)
1800 353 5800