Understanding mental well-being can be a daunting task—especially for youths. So we spoke to two social service professionals about the importance of taking care of one’s mental wellness, and how youths can address their issues.
When symptoms of the flu—sore throat, cough and a runny nose—arise, most of us know how to thwart the virus. We drink warm water, rest often, and maybe pop a paracetamol or two. But when symptoms of mental illnesses such as having consistent mood swings, problems sleeping, or feelings of excessive sadness appear, we may grapple with how to address them.
“Mental health has a very serious impact on our well-being, yet it’s invisible to the eyes of society as compared to physical illnesses,” says Amos Ng, who heads the Outreach & Intervention Service at Trybe.
In 2018, IMH reported that one in seven people in Singapore experienced a mental disorder, and according to WHO, 10—20% of adolescents aged 10—19 worldwide experience mental health conditions. But how do mental health issues affect teenagers?
“Youths may turn to aggression, substances, social isolation and even self-harm as a way to soothe themselves,” says Nathan Parreno, a counsellor at Trybe. In 2018 alone, 94 youths in Singapore took their own lives.
There are a variety of factors that contribute to youths’ mental health issues during these formative years. As teenagers begin to find their place in a rapidly-changing world, they undergo hormonal, physical and psychological changes, which can be difficult for them to grasp or understand, resulting in internal conflicts.
To add, they’re likely to face stress and pressure from school, family or relationships with partners or friends. “They’re basically responding to their external factors and internal conflict,” Nathan explains. “And this gets messy for them.”
While these are weighty, sobering facts, there are certainly ways for youths to overcome their hurdles.
Talk It Out
Most of us are probably familiar with this situation: Something sets us off, and we immediately go to a reliable friend to let off steam. Our companion listens and nods empathetically as we barrel through our frustrations. And after we’re done—it feels like a load is lifted off our shoulders. We feel lighter, relieved, less tensed. Now, we’re proposing that youths do the same.
“For most youths who feel lonely or angry, it’s not that they need to do something [harmful]. They just need to vent and talk it out,” Nathan shares. “Severe mental health issues may need psychotherapy and medication, but often, just talking about it would be a great initial approach.”
When youths’ emotions are validated when speaking to someone, this often leads to feeling heard, understood and connected—prerequisites to happy human beings. A UCLA study also showed that verbalising feelings has cognitive benefits resulting in a therapeutic effect. It allows individuals to focus and identify their emotions, which has proved to calm the mind.
Choose Influences Carefully
Who youths talk to also matters. “From my observations, people who are in distress usually tend to link themselves with the people of the same kind—other stressed people—because they think that they understand each other.
“And this might not be the healthiest because sometimes they’ll pull each other down. Addiction may become worse. It’s like, ‘you feel something [bad], I feel something [bad]—let’s take something.” Nathan points out.
In some cases, youths may have sought help before but have gotten negative response or unpleasant experience, leaving them disheartened and feeling worse.
Therefore, youths need to select their listening ears mindfully. A trusted friend, mentor or pro-social adult are all options a teenager may turn to in their lives. But how do they identify them?
According to Amos, “Someone who doesn’t judge and who is genuinely interested in your well-being,” are traits to look for before letting it all out. “It’s important for youths to have a community and relationships where they’re emotionally satisfied. I would encourage them to seek out relationships that are healthier and can gain support from.”
Seek Professional Help
Talking it out also allows the listener to gently nudge youths to seek professional help if they exhibit symptoms of mental health such as violent or criminal tendencies.
For example, Nathan once counselled Tim*, who lived in a challenging family environment. Tim’s divorced parents (who still stayed together) argued frequently, and he found himself turning to substances as a way to escape his circumstances.
Over several counselling sessions, Nathan helped Tim process his emotions, eventually asking if he was open to clinical help. Tim agreed and was referred to a psychologist who diagnosed Tim with General Anxiety Disorder, allowing him to receive the proper treatment he needed.
In Singapore, there are multiple social service agencies and helplines for youths to reach out to such as the Singapore Association for Mental Health and Samaritans of Singapore. Trybe also runs Chrysalis, a service that helps and empowers youths exhibiting at-risk behaviours and mental health symptoms overcome their challenges in life. Each estate also homes a Family Service Centre that teens can call or walk in to speak to a counsellor and at schools, students can request for a school counsellor.
Unfortunately, more than 75% of people in Singapore with a mental disorder do not seek professional help, and this has far-reaching consequences.
“I’ve counselled adults and the elderly with addiction issues and most of their problems tend to stem from their youth age.” Nathan shares. “Because they weren’t addressed—as there was no help during that time—it accumulated for years, and it’s hard to undo things. It’s hard to introduce support because their bodies, minds and emotions are used to it.”
But when addressed early on, professional services can help teens develop healthy coping mechanisms and strengthen their emotional and mental resilience that will follow them into adulthood.
The effects of mental health symptoms and issues in adolescence are lifelong, which is why professionals recommend that people seek help as early as possible. Like any other illness, the adage remains: prevention is better than cure.
Express Emotions in Other Ways
During times when face-to-face interactions may not be possible (such as a global pandemic), texting or video-calling may be just as beneficial. And if youths struggle to talk about their emotions, there are other ways to express themselves.
“Some behavioural issues stem from the lack of serotonin and dopamine, which are happy hormones. Engaging in sports or learning new skills will introduce this naturally, so they don’t need to turn to substances to make them happy.” Nathan explains.
Some hobbies that have proven to be just as cathartic have been journaling, exercising, and art. For example, Amos recalls Trybe’s latest art jamming activity that aimed to strengthen family ties by creating art together:
“There were two youths who experienced mental health issues, and they invited their father and grandfather to the event. Throughout the session, one of the girls used a lot of dark colours, and we knew she had depressive and suicidal thoughts.
“However, she shared that she used art as a message to communicate her perspectives. When she draws, paints or designs, she feels better and finds it helps her cope. Her grandfather, who did not understand her behaviour before, became more open, and that helped bring them closer.”
Mental Health as a Nation-Wide Concern
On a larger scale, mental health is still a burgeoning topic in Singapore, and people are only recently schooled on its effects and how to navigate them. Campaigns such as ‘Beyond the Label’ help to destigmatise mental health issues and in schools, more is being done to educate students.
The Health Promotion Board as well as the Ministry of Education are working on introducing mental health into school curriculums, CCAs and various programmes to boost students’ social and emotional skills and resilience.
While these initiatives will likely to take some time to seed, youths have the power to improve their mental well-being in their own ways.
In the same way how drinking a warm ginger tea is a small, but positive step to curbing flu symptoms, a good talk with a trusted friend may be just the antidote to mental afflictions. Talking may not make the issue disappear altogether, but it’s certainly a useful step towards making youths feel a whole lot better.
*The client’s name has been changed to protect his identity.
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About our Volunteer Writer
I’m Wahidah, freelance writer and full-time cat person. In my spare time, I like to tumble on a mat to find calm through yoga, and more recently, Muay Thai. Volunteering’s always given me new perspectives, and I hope that in contributing, I’d be able to help others get the support they need.