For Life speaks to Dr Daniel Fung, Chairman, Medical Board, Institute of Mental Health Singapore about the importance of increasing awareness of mental health.
(Q) Is there still a social stigma surrounding mental illness today, as compared to the 1960s-90s?
(A) There still is a social stigma surrounding mental illness today but this stigma has been reduced because of education and better understanding and demystification of mental illness. Serious illnesses such as schizophrenia continue to face a lot of stigma and recognition is still poor. However acceptance and understanding of more common conditions such as depression and anxiety has improved a lot.
(Q) If so, what is the difference? (E.g. People are more accepting of people with mental illness now but certain mindsets might remain and if so, what are these mindsets)
(A) Public and mainstream education have increased the awareness of mental illness compared to the 1960s to the 1990s. As schools start to incorporate mental well-being and resilience into the curriculum, understanding of mental illness will invariably improve. However, media and movies continue to perpetuate some of the myths of mental illness. This is also changing but still needs work.
(Q) What can be done to increase awareness of mental illness?
(A) There are two main issues: one has to do with getting the right information out there, for example, in the form of public education as well as teaching from young in schools.
The other pertains to how we treat people with mental illness and reduce stigma. We should strive to reduce discrimination at the workplace; for example, employees should not ask if a prospective job candidate has mental illness just after you ask him/her if he/she has a medical illness in the job interview pro forma. We should have mental illnesses covered by insurance – just like more common conditions such as cancer are covered by insurance – rather than as a separate rider.
(Q) Why is it so important to increase awareness of mental illness?
(A) Mental illness is terribly common. Of course, mental illness covers a large group of different conditions and one cannot assume they are one and the same. Anxiety and depression can afflict up to 25 percent of the population at any one time. Schizophrenia is less common with about one percent of the population suffering from it. Bipolar disorder is even less common but can afflict about 0.5 percent of the population.
(Q) Are there any easily accessible and available avenues where people can share their own stories or stories of loved ones’ with mental illness?
(A) In Singapore, there are a number of voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) that cast a light on the plights of people suffering from mental illness and their caregivers. VWOs are non-profit organisations that provide welfare services that benefit the community at large. VWOs such as Silver Ribbon and the Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH) have in their objectives a desire to advocate and de-stigmatise mental illness. These organisations would be happy for people to share their stories within the many platforms including online ones.
If you or someone you know needs help pertaining to mental health, call the SAMH toll-free counselling helpline: 1800-283-7019
Main photo by Shutterstock, portrait of Dr Daniel Fung by Dr Daniel Fung.