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Flowers left at River Valley High School in Boon Lay, the scene of the 13-year-old's tragic death on July 19, 2021. — TODAY pic
Flowers left at River Valley High School in Boon Lay, the scene of the 13-year-old’s tragic death on July 19, 2021. — TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, July 24 ― Parents, schools and society at large are “ill-equipped” to deal with young people facing mental health issues, President Halimah Yacob said yesterday (July 23), in response to the death of a 13-year-old boy at River Valley High School. A 16-year-old fellow student, who attempted suicide two years ago, has been charged with murder.

Parents face “great difficulty” in knowing if their children are acting out as part of their growth phase as adolescents, or if it is due to a much deeper issue, Halimah wrote in a Facebook post.

It is also not possible for teachers who are already overloaded with work to delve deeply into issues affecting one student as this requires close monitoring, observation and engagement, she added.

“Society too imposes high expectations on our children, particularly on those who seem to be doing well academically,” Halimah wrote.

“We expect to see a linear progression in their performance with no interruption whatsoever, like some well-oiled machinery. Parents compare all the time.

“We often say that a well developed, healthy child is better than a troubled child who seems to be shooting all ‘A’s but is suffering, but we actually send different signals to them,” she said.

Her comments come the same day Education Minister Chan Chun Sing announced that he will deliver a ministerial statement in Parliament next week to address the support given to schools and students in need following the River Valley High incident.

Attempted suicides a cry for help

Calling the incident “a great tragedy”, Halimah said no words could describe how the victim’s parents feel to have him snatched away so suddenly.

“But one can’t help feeling sorry for the 16-year-old and his family too,” said the president. On Tuesday, the 16-year-old was remanded for psychiatric assessment.

Noting that the boy had been referred to the Institute of Mental Health over his suicide attempt two years ago, Mdm Halimah said that the impact of mental illness at a young age tends to be a lot more severe than for someone who is afflicted later in life.

“Attempted suicides are a real cry for help,” said Halimah, noting that the public still did not have details on the support the 16-year-old received after that episode to deal with his mental health or the factors leading to his breakdown.

She added: “We do know however that parents, schools and our society are ill equipped to deal with this situation.”

Parents fear stigma of mental health

While children with mental health issues may need some time off from school, parents are unsure of what to do with their children, who may need to stay home for a whole year to rehabilitate, said Halimah.

She questioned if there were programmes to make it easier for such parents to meaningfully engage their children beyond receiving psychiatric treatment or medication.

Halimah also said that parents fear the “terrible stigma” that mental health attracts.

“There is still so much ignorance, stereotype and prejudice in our society against people with mental health issues that parents fear doing more harm than good to their children’s future by seeking treatment that they delay with disastrous consequences,” she added.

Beef up school support for mental health

Mdm Halimah said “schools need a lot more resources and support to help students with mental health issues”.

She said one way is for schools to partner with social service agencies dealing with mental wellness, which can help to run programmes educating students on mental well-being.

Singapore could also learn from the experience of other countries with more developed support systems, she added.

“It takes a tragedy like this to start us thinking deeply again about the mental health of our young.

“Most of our children can cope, are resilient and will grow up well. But not all children are the same. Some do need more help and not just from the school but from everyone,” said the president. ― TODAY

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