Mental illness is a medical disorder which affects your behaviour, emotion, or thinking. According to the World Health Organization, more than 20% of the world’s children and adolescents have a mental disorder. In a practical sense, in my maths class of 20, on average, 4 of them will have a mental health issue. According to the same WHO report, nearly 800,000 people commit suicide every year. That’s one person every forty seconds. EVEN more shocking – it’s estimated that for each adult who died by suicide there may have been more than 20 others attempting suicide. Clearly, mental health is a very relevant, very serious issue with incredibly damaging consequences.


It is an undeniable truth that mental health is a prominent issue facing adolescents today with permanent access to the worldwide web. But surely this isn’t the only factor influencing mental health issues. In reality, there are many genetic and unforeseeable environmental factors – often referred to as the nature versus nurture debate. There are many influences contributing to the mental health epidemic; one of which is social media. Another relatively recent factor that reportedly influences mental health is the current political uncertainty and environmental anxiety that faces today’s youth.


According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, sustainability is defined as two things: the quality of being able to sustain for a period of time and the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment. While this definition is often taken to mean the natural environment, it also applies to our social and political environments.

Following this definition, mental health concerns are a huge sustainability point in our society. It’s clear that the rising mental health epidemic cannot last or sustain. But this issue is one that transcends the label of typical “sustainability” and reaches into human sustainability. It also is an issue that transcends the 5 development Ps, as it extends into the Peace, Prosperity and People categories.

Of course, in a model sustainable society with fulfilled SDGs, there is no mental illness or even any illness at all.


Many think this is what we should be striving for – but this is an incredibly idealistic approach. Mental illness is like other illnesses in that it’s a natural part of life. It’s not realistic to aim for such a society. But there have been steps to reach a more sustainable community with solid support for people struggling with an illness.

For example, mental health was adopted as a part of the SDGs by the UN’s General Assembly in the Sustainable Development Agenda of September 2015. It now fits underneath goal 3 – to promote health and wellbeing. This measure has done a lot to raise awareness and promote discussion on mental health concerns – a huge part of breaking the stigma surrounding such issues. This was a significant step as mental illnesses were recognized as a health concern by the UN, a well-known global organization. WHO’s Director-General Dr M. Chan, spoke very positively on this – describing it as a “historical turning point.” She exclaimed that “Finally these [disorders] are getting the attention they deserve.”


The inclusion of mental health in the SDGs also has had an impact on Singapore and the government, who publicly voiced their support for the 2030 goals in 2015. Following this, Singapore’s Ministry of Health publicly announced their 5-year-plan for mental health in 2017 – essentially to strengthen community mental health services. This attempt has been relatively successful as the Singaporean government has a lot of control over the population and their beliefs. The MOH has spoken about their goal to educate the public – as well as, for example, increasing the number of community outreach teams from 18 to 50 by 2021 according to Channel News Asia. Additionally, finance Minister Heng Swee Keat spoke about adding an additional S$160 million in spending on mental health to the governmental budget. This is huge for Singapore and concrete changes have been made.

As we know from our past wealth and poverty unit, poverty comes hand in hand with other social issues – such as, for example, mental health issues. There is a clear correlation here, and according to WHO’s Mental Health Atlas of 2011, only 25 cents are spent on mental health treatment per person per year in certain low-income countries.


Ban-ki Moon, a global figure and UN Secretary-General has voiced his opinion on the growing mental health epidemic and its relation to poverty. According to WHO, He has famously stated that “There is no health without mental health,”, further noting that the rise of mental illness often places severe financial burden on individuals and households. Mr Moon has said that “mental disorders need to find their rightful place in the public health agenda,”, and according to WHO, “too little funding was devoted to mental health despite the debilitating nature of the illnesses and the fact they can be prevented or treated effectively”. This perspective aligns with the UN’s typically humanist values and as Secretary-General, Ban-Ki Moon’s perspective has almost certainly been influenced here.

Now as discussed previously, it is often not possible to prevent such illnesses; so our focus should be on treatment and social inclusion for those suffering. It’s often forgotten that for nearly all mental disorders there are effective treatments. However, this aid is not often not effective as nearly two-thirds of people with a known mental disorder never seek help from a health professional according to WHO.


In Singapore, this is where the issue lies. According to the Singapore Mental Health Study of 2010, about 1 in 8 people have a mental disorder in sg. There is aid available to Singaporeans. The biggest issue here is not the mental health itself – which is a natural part of life – but rather the treatment of persons suffering from such a disorder.

The NCSS conducted a survey with 1,800 participants in 2017 – 60% of whom said they believe mental health conditions are caused by a lack of willpower, and half indicated they are unwilling to live with, live nearby, or work with a person with a mental health condition.


Stigma, discrimination and neglect prevent care and treatment from reaching people with mental disorders, says the World Health Organization. The top three most common disorders here in Singapore are depression, alcohol abuse and obsessive-compulsive disorder; all three of which are treatable.

In 2018, the National Council of Social Services started a campaign called Beyond the Label here in Singapore. According to NCSS, a few of their goals are to raise awareness and educate the public on the stigma surrounding persons with mental health conditions. They also want to facilitate more conversations on mental health and encourage a more accurate portrayal of persons with mental health conditions in the news and media. This second attempt has been incredibly successful, garnering national support for the campaign.


Specifically, Beyond the Label conducted a 2018 experiment to reveal the extent of Singaporean beliefs on mental health. Singaporeans described mental health patients as “short-circuited” and “crazy”, claiming they would find simple jobs like “sweeper or cleaner” for them.

An uncle reasoned that “either they hurt themselves or they’re gonna hurt someone else”. Then, he added, “If you have a mental illness, you apply for a job who in the right sense would really want to take you?“ Many participants said that mental health patients may “get quite manipulative” and others mentioned that they would distance themselves and avoid confrontation – even if the person suffering was a family member or close friend.


This experimental measure reveals a typical Singaporean mindset – that mental health patients are violent or sort of less human because of their condition. This perspective – or perhaps, misunderstanding – isn’t based on faith or ethics or even a particular ideology. Historically, people have always been afraid of what they don’t understand. And mental health is a very misunderstood topic. This is at the very core of the stigma – a cultural fear of the unknown. Despite this, the experiment has been very successful in Singapore – with the video garnering half a million views on youtube and being displayed in Singaporean cinemas. As quite a controversial topic, the video definitely did spark conversation. Given that the goal is to reach a sustainable society where people speak up and receive help, this is a good, necessary first step.

As someone who has been personally affected by a mental disorder, I was shocked at this experiment. I believe fundamentally that every human life holds equal value and that a mental disorder does not take away from that worth. I believe that this issue is one of utmost importance and that such stigma as seen in this video seriously endangers lives and the livelihood of a large proportion of people.


My perspective here aligns with UWC’s – a humanist – as opposed to, for example, a utilitarian ideology. UWCSEA East has been partnered up with Hougang Care Center, a VWO which also aligns with my beliefs. The organization provides life skills and recreational activities, aiming to understand mental health conditions and support patients in their daily lives. As a very small organization, it’s relatively insignificant to the global issue. However – in Singapore, any organization working to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health is incredibly significant and very necessary. UWC students go and support this centre, interacting with the patients and helping out.

This sustainability issue is evident when it comes to employment. Many people with a history of mental illness struggle to find a job – and when millions of people worldwide are unable to find work, this will hinder economic and social development significantly. According to the Institute of Mental Health in Singapore, Chan Lishan, a man with Schizophrenia, was encouraged to lie on job applications by allied health professionals and even anti-stigma advocates. When he honestly confessed he had schizophrenia, he often received no interview or reply on his applications. Occasionally, he was asked what it was like to have a psychotic episode.  A final attempt made by the advocacy group Silver Ribbon to tackle the sustainability issue in Singapore is the call to stop employers from asking potential employees about their mental health history. This attempt is ongoing but if successful, will be a massive development for the community. Those with disorders can begin to fully integrate into society and earn income.

One possible REALISTIC solution to increase the sustainability of mental health here in Singapore is just opening up avenues for discussion about the issue. But by creating more campaigns to educate the public, we can begin to take steps to that ideal world. As we can see from our Beyond the Label experiment, many Singaporeans are still misguided on mental health issues. Furthermore, we can see that this relatively cheap method has worked in the past, so this solution is definitely feasible. But is it enough? If we can successfully start conversations, a next step would be having initiatives to encourage the employment of people with mental disorders. Even if we can’t prevent or cure all mental disorders – I believe we can create a sustainable society where people feel free to seek help without fear of judgement.  


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