REPORTS OF STUDENTS COMMITTING AND ATTEMPTING SUICIDE SINCE START OF COVID-19 PANDEMIC

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected many of us in so many different ways. The impact extends beyond the infection and economic consequences to mental health issues.

In early July 2021, I filed a question asking the Minister for Education on the impact of Covid-19 on the mental health of our students and steps that his Ministry will be taking to improve the mental resilience of our students.

I also took the opportunity to suggest, during the clarification time after Minister Chan issued a Ministerial Statement on the tragic case of the death of a 13 year old student at River Valley High School on 27 July 2021, that mental resilience be one of the desired outcomes of education for our children by the time they complete school. Minister Chan responded by fully agreeing to my suggestion.

My questions and Minister Chan’s responses are set out below.

REPORTS OF STUDENTS COMMITTING AND ATTEMPTING SUICIDE SINCE START OF COVID-19 PANDEMIC

Mr. Murali Pillai asked the Minister for Education a) since the COVID-19 pandemic started, how many students have been reported to have committed suicide, attempted suicide or suffered from mental health issues; b) whether the numbers suggest an uptick from the corresponding numbers before the pandemic; c) what are the contributory factors to the current state of affairs; and d) what steps are being or will be taken by his Ministry to improve the mental resilience of our students.

Mr. Chan Chun Sing: Based on ICA data, the suicide incidence rate for young persons aged 10 to 19 increased from 4.0 per 100,000 persons in 2019 to 5.5 per 100,000 persons in 2020. This increase is part of an overall increase in the suicide incidence rate at the national level, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Student welfare, including mental well-being, is of utmost importance to MOE. We are monitoring the issue of student suicide closely. The underlying causes of suicide are complex. There are often multiple contributory stressors, including relationship problems with adults and peers, mental health issues, academic related difficulties and personal struggles. We have observed that the COVID-19 situation has aggravated existing stressors. These could include frustrations arising from disruptions of normal routine, a heightened sense of uncertainty about the future, and increased inter-personal conflicts at home due to restricted movement. These observations are in line with international literature, which indicates that the pandemic has resulted in an increase in psychological distress and mental health-related issues among youths.

Our schools and Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) have been strengthening students’ mental well-being and enhancing their personal resilience through Mental Health Education in the Character and Citizenship Education curriculum in schools, and mental resilience and well-being programmes in the IHLs.

Beyond education efforts, schools and IHLs have teachers and staff who are trained to identify signs of distress in their students, monitor their well-being, and provide guidance and support. In-house counsellors provide additional targeted support to students and make prompt referrals to mental health professionals where necessary. Our schools and IHLs have also trained Peer Support Leaders look out for their peers and alert a trusted adult when they notice that their peers are in distress.

During the COVID-19 period, MOE introduced further measures to support our students. For example, teachers conduct check-ins to closely monitor their students’ well- being, and classroom time is used to teach students how to cope with the pandemic. Schools and IHLs have also stepped up efforts to proactively identify and look out for vulnerable students and reach out to them to provide early support. Ultimately, a culture of care is important, as well as mutual concern for each other.

MOE will continue to strengthen our measures, and work closely with all stakeholders to help ensure the safety and well-being of our students.

Mr. Murali Pillai: Mr. Deputy Speaker, Sir, I join the hon Minister in expressing our sadness to the affected families and wishes for them to overcome their grief, as well as wishes to the affected students, teachers, staff and Principal of River Valley High School in overcoming the tragedy that befell on them.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the hon Minister for his personal leadership in handling this tough incident. I know that I speak for a number of other hon Members of Parliament as well. He can be assured that he has our full support in his endeavour to make RV emerge stronger and the rest of the school system stronger as well.

Sir, I have a question in relation to making mental resilience a desired outcome of education for all students. As the Minister mentioned, already, certain subjects or certain programmes in schools are geared towards this. He had also shared that if he were to just target those students who are susceptible to mental issues, there would be an issue of stigma, they may not come forward.

So, why do we not put mental resilience as a strategic objective in school and ensure that our children, when they emerge from the education system, they are mentally resilient to deal with the challenges of the future? This will resonate throughout because when they enter the workforce, they will be mentally resilient; when they become parents, they will be mentally resilient; and so on.

Mr. Chan Chun Sing: Mr. Deputy Speaker, Sir, we fully agree with Mr. Murali that mental resilience is one of the outcomes we want from our education system.

Indeed, perhaps this is even more important than ever before. I have described the kind of new challenges that our young people have to go through growing up nowadays. The world will become more uncertain, more turbulent. Success in the future will not just depend on our technical competencies. Success in the future will very much also depend on the resilience of our people as individuals and as a society. That is why we fully agree with Mr. Murali.

This is the reason why we want to balance our curriculum. Despite COVID-19, we want to bring back CCAs for the older students as soon as possible. This is part of character development. This is part of the process for them to build social bonds and to develop their emotional and psychological resilience; and we will do this as soon as we can.

We will find ways to do this, notwithstanding COVID-19, because the school is not just about academic pursuits. The school is about the holistic development of our children. We will definitely want to do more for our students in this turbulent world and we thank Mr. Murali for his support.

Member of Parliament for Bukit Batok SMC, Advisor to Bukit Batok SMC GROs.