Recent results from the Singapore Mental Health Study by the Institute of Mental Health highlighted an alarming issue. In just under three years, there has been a fivefold increase in the number of children between the ages of five and nine calling in to their hotline to seek help. And when one weighs this against global research revealing that 50 percent of mental health conditions develop in children aged 14 and below, this troubling pattern cannot be ignored. The future of our nation is calling for help, and we have to identify the root of the problem.
Mental health encompasses far more than just the mere absence of mental illness. It is a state of well-being that empowers individuals to properly enjoy their lives; and a state of mind that helps children navigate the ups and downs of life. We also have to understand the complex connection between mental health and physical health a little better. Though more emphasis is placed on physical health over mental health sometimes, the decline of one can quickly lead to problems in the other. Ultimately, it’s about maintaining a fine balance between the two.
Building positive mental health is an active process and skill that emphasises being in sync with our emotions, vulnerabilities, and authenticity. It is the capacity and capability to express and manage one’s emotions appropriately. It is what fosters qualities such as resilience and self-awareness, qualities we want future generations to embody.
To further delve into and explore the importance of mental health in our children, we turn to Dr Weipeng Yang, a lecturer for our Early Childhood Education Programme at the S R Nathan School of Human Development, for his thoughts on the matter.
How important is mental health in children? How does it impact their lives and development?
Yang: Mental health is often regarded as the absence of mental illness but it actually affects every moment of our lives. We should see it as a means for facilitating positive social-emotional competence (SEC).
SEC is the integrated functioning of understanding, identification, regulation, and expression of emotions and having positive interactions with others. The development of SEC such as social behaviour, adaptive behaviour, emotional stability, self-regulation, and interpersonal relationships is crucial for children’s lifelong well-being.
A lack of SEC results in peer rejection and behavioural problems, which can perpetuate throughout their lives. Positive SEC development benefits children in their peer relations, school adaptation, and well-being. As a result, those with developed SEC have greater motivation to learn and are more likely to become a more integral part of the school community.
What do you make of the rapid increase in children between the ages of five and nine phoning the Institute of Mental Health’s hotline for help?
Yang:Children have varying capabilities in expressing and self-regulating their emotions and behaviours. This is because they are surrounded by different family, neighbourhood and school environments.
Children can be guided to think, express and regulate their emotions and behaviours appropriately to minimise negative physical or emotional reaction. And adult educators should seek to understand and respect children’s points of view. Effective facilitation and consistency within children’s immediate environment are important to enhance children’s learning. Parents and teachers should learn how to support children’s social-emotional learning (SEL), particularly when an increase of children with emotional or behavioural disorders has been reported.
How are big events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, affecting the mental health of our children?
Yang: COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on the mental health of children. To contain the spread, governments worldwide suspended education and care services such as preschools and child care centres. Such drastic measures result in the deficiency of education and care provision and have short- and long-term effects on children’s mental and physical development, due to a lack of participation in learning or play activities. For children separated from their parents or caregivers who are quarantined, there might be stress, anxiety, loss of security, and psychological trauma caused by the absence of companionship.
Furthermore, adverse effects might happen to those children who are deprived of the opportunity to go to preschool, child care centre or primary school, especially those living in low-income or broken families.
Are we neglecting mental health in general? Is this a problem that is limited to Singaporean or Asian societies in particular? Does the Singaporean education system place enough emphasis on building mental health?
Yang: Both mental illness and mental health neglect in children are global issues. There is an urgent need to bring in the social-emotional learning (SEL) component, which helps prepare them for the inevitable challenges in life.
Researchers previously project the Singaporean child as passive and incapable of expressing opinions, but SEL opportunities enable them to build relationships and practice social skills to become active and responsible citizens. The academic-focused culture in Singapore’s education system, with teachers and parents prioritising academic areas in children’s learning, does not necessarily facilitate such opportunities. With that said, teachers, parents, and policymakers should consciously recognise the role of core SEL competencies such as positive self-concept, self-regulation and negotiation skills in children’s learning, development, and life functioning.
What can we as parents, as well as the community at large, do to ensure strong mental health in our children?
Yang: Government-initiated solutions include releasing guides for implementing learning activities at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, asking preschools and schools to build stronger rapport with families and communities, and providing special education and care services for children from lower-income families. Implementing effective measures to replace the formal education and care services in extreme circumstances is crucial in the long run, to strengthen the ability of our society to care for our children.
Meanwhile, positive education approaches, models, and programmes should be promoted and integrated into the existing early childhood and school curricula to equip children with social-emotional competence. Approaches with a specific curricular component should also promote caring, engaging and participatory learning environments rather than a highly controlled, authoritarian one.
All children deserve the basic right to be happy and healthy. A child’s early experiences exert a tremendous influence on their brain architecture and behavioural patterns, laying foundations for their development throughout their lives. Strong childhood foundations thus go a long way towards helping our children fulfil their potential and lead productive lives. And it all begins with building mental health.
 TODAY (JUL 2019) Make mental health education mandatory in Singapore schools