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October, 23, 2016

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Singapore needs change on mental health

Singapore -- It is disconcerting that seven in 10 people with mental illness believe that they are stigmatized by society, while slightly more than half have problems joining community events. These findings of a survey reveal the travails of people recovering from problems such as mood and anxiety disorders or schizophrenia. What is disturbing is that a number of respondents had less severe mental health issues and were able to hold jobs, as they needed to use only mental health social services in the community. The sense of marginalization, if not outright rejection, felt by many of them was pronounced. Those with severe problems would no doubt feel this more acutely. Social introspection is necessary as the call for an inclusive society will ring hollow if some are deliberately or unwittingly left out in the cold.

The key need is to view a mental problem as a disease and not as a curse. Like other diseases, it is controllable with medication, therapy, better understanding of the affliction, self-help and societal support. Such understanding should extend beyond family and pastoral circles if those who are on the mend are to be successfully reintegrated into society. Potential employers in particular can play a useful role. It is to their credit that more employers are willing to give former offenders a second chance. Denied the means to support themselves, some might regress to crime as the only available economic alternative. The mentally ill too deserve a chance to contribute economically. If they are constantly turned away, they will feel a growing sense of desperation and injustice, as they have committed no offence at all. Deprived, they could become an economic burden on their families, and on society ultimately when individual resources are exhausted.

The Job Club, which is located at the Institute of Mental Health, attributes prejudice to persistent myths — like associating mental illness with irrational behavior, unpredictable tendencies and violent outbursts. But such symptoms might be absent for a proportion of patients. For example, some suffering from depression might feel nothing more than sadness. With help, they can recover and manage their condition, notes the Job Club. If meaningfully engaged, "the skills and abilities of persons with long-term psychiatric illness can be sustained and they are able to be gainfully employed and to live (a) useful and productive life".

Naturally, job assignments must take into account the health record of an employee. But it might be less of an issue for certain tasks, even in complex vocational fields, where output is generated independently or creatively. Support groups like the Job Club stand ready to work with employers who are prepared to give mental health patients a break. Contingency planning and work-life balance are important. In that respect, it is no different from what applies to all workers.

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