In July this year, a 16-year-old student at River Valley High School was charged with the murder of a fellow 13-year-old schoolmate on campus. The mental health of adolescents here quickly became a focus of public interest. But look a little deeper and you’ll see that it has been a matter of growing concern in recent times: According to Samaritans of Singapore, suicide was the leading cause of death for those aged 10 to 29 in 2019, the highest number in that year compared to those in other age groups.
When considering those statistics and the recent shocking incident, the condition of adolescents is of particular concern. What can we as a society do to make things better?
THE ROOT CAUSE
While there are many factors that contribute to the mental health of a young person, experts generally agree that those with traumatic childhood experiences are more prone to developing mental health issues.
“These events include physical, emotional and sexual abuse, neglect, parental divorce, the death or abandonment of a parent, or bullying in school or at home. They send damaging messages to a young person’s fragile sense of self, and make them vulnerable to feeling like they are helpless, hopeless, useless or insignificant,” says Dr Mark Toh, a clinical psychologist at Promises Healthcare who has extensive experience in working with children and adolescents.
His sentiment is echoed by Lee Yi Ping, principal case manager and programme lead at Community Health Assessment Team (Chat), a national outreach programme under the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) that supports young people with mental health issues. “When these negative emotions become persistent, they can affect a young person’s ability to function in their daily life,” she says.
As it stands, emotional neglect is common in Singapore. The Singapore Mental Health Study released last year found that 46.5 per cent of adult Singaporeans reported emotional neglect as the most frequent adverse experience in their childhood.
Plus, adolescence is typically a tumultuous time in a person’s life. “This period between childhood and adulthood is often filled with anxiety. There is self-doubt, confusion and the pressure to conform, on top of feeling like they have no control over the stressors they face,” adds Dr Toh.
Here’s the thing: The youth of today not only face different challenges from those of 10 to 20 years ago, but also bigger ones.
“Given the significant improvement in population mobility and communications, youths now face greater competition in education and at work. And with the advancement in technology, many jobs are at risk of being displaced, so there’s more pressure on them to excel,” says Yi Ping.
The prevalence of social media also has a huge part to play in the way people feel about themselves. Much as the various platforms make it easy for them to gain acceptance, make connections and earn recognition, they also facilitate the opposite effects.
“The use of social media is often a solitary affair, and a young person may become distressed if they feel disappointed or rejected by the responses received. This distress can be exacerbated by cyberbullying, particularly when the cyberbullies hide under the cloak of anonymity. All these intense emotions can make them develop depression or anxiety.”
And then there’s the modern condition that is gaming addiction. According to Dr Toh, those addicted to gaming are twice as likely to be depressed than those who do not game. In addition, the damage of excessive gaming among children can lead to shortened attention span, difficulty concentrating, struggles with delayed gratification and weaker memory.
The fallout from the Covid-19 outbreak has also been detrimental to this age group.
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