• The Convergence

Opinion Survey: Students’ views on Mental Health and the Environment for Singapore’s Future

By Carmen, co-authored by Natalie - NUSPA Feedback Unit


1. Background


With the pandemic, two issues have become prominent in Singapore. For starters, the subject of mental health has gained traction amongst the populace, and it has become increasingly vital to tackle mental health concerns. In 2020, Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) reported a spike in calls by up to 40% on May 16, the day additional measures were put in place to curb the spread of the virus. [1] In addition, in 2021, the Institute of Mental Health collaborated with the University of Hong Kong to survey 1,058 Singapore citizens and permanent residents. The survey found that approximately 13% of those surveyed reported having symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic. [2]


Similarly, research from the National University Health System's Mind Science Centre found that 3 out of 4 students in NUS were at risk of developing depression due to the pandemic. [3] It is evident that the uncertainty of livelihoods and fears of falling ill have become stressors that can put a tremendous emotional strain on our mental well beings.


Furthermore, in recent years there has been increasing attention put on environmental concerns since the COVID-19 pandemic. On August 9, 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported climate change was happening at an unprecedented level, with changes happening that are irreversible over the course of a hundred to thousands of years, reiterating that human activity was the major driver of climate change. The pandemic has significantly altered the progress made toward sustainability. [4] In June 2020, researchers estimated that globally, almost 129 billion masks were used every month. Moreover, growing reliance on takeaway containers has led to a rise in single-use plastic waste. [5]


In line with the Feedback Unit’s objectives, we wish to focus on uncovering students’ perspectives on various socio-political issues, so as to increase government-youth engagement on key national issues and policies. The Feedback Unit hopes to gain insights from youths on these challenges and to encourage greater youth participation on political issues. With the changing concerns of Singaporeans in response to the pandemic, this survey aims to examine the viewpoints and perspectives of the youth towards these two themes, looking at what youths deem as important for future policymaking, and their vision of Singapore’s future.


2. Survey Demographics



The survey sampled participants from the campus, namely the College of Design and Engineering, the College of Humanities and Sciences, and the faculties of Business and Computing. Booths were situated at 4 locations across NUS, where participants were able to complete the survey to redeem LiHO vouchers.


801 students responded to the survey, consisting of 691 undergraduates (Y1 = 267, Y2 = 201, Y3 = 123, Y4 = 100) and 110 postgraduates. The participants were made up of 401 females and 385 males. 15 participants did not specify their gender. The majority of our participants were from the College of Design and Engineering (CDE = 225) and the School of Computing (SOC = 103). A more detailed demographic breakdown can be found in the table below.

Faculty

Number of students

Faculty of Business

93

College of Design and Engineering

225

College of Humanities and Sciences

93

Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

96

Faculty of Science

80

Faculty of Law

7

Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine

38

School of Computing

103

Others

66


3. Mental Health


3.1. Perceptions on Mental Health



85.1% of participants agreed that people with mental health issues could contribute meaningfully to society, and 78.5% of participants agreed that they would be willing to befriend someone who had mental health issues. These statistics were drawn from participants who indicated either a ‘4’ or a ‘5’ for their answers.


Such findings suggest mental health has become increasingly accepted in the eyes of Singapore’s youth, where youths are much more aware and have a greater understanding when it comes to the topic. This is especially heartening given that previous research has found that peers are one of the highest contributors to mental health stigma [6]. Prior studies have found that approximately two-thirds of surveyees experienced a form of peer stigma, and one in five indicated feeling unable or unmotivated to develop strong peer relations [7]. This is a step in the right direction for destigmatising mental health in our society.


However, while general perceptions of people with mental health concerns are more favourable, the question of whether they would treat people with mental health issues differently led to inconclusive results. Participants’ responses were even across the board – 15.2% strongly disagreed, while 25.5% strongly agreed. Most participants (27%) were on the fence.


One important distinction made by participants was how they would treat those who had more ‘serious’ conditions vis-à-vis those who had more manageable conditions. Participants shared they would be more careful and conscious around those who had more difficulty adjusting, as they were unsure of how they would be perceived.


These mixed results may suggest gaps in addressing mental health stigma in Singapore. While many in Singapore are aware of the importance of mental health, not many are aware of how to take action to help those around them that may be facing mental health issues. This is especially concerning when this lack of awareness pertains to how to help those who are facing more severe conditions, as it is often that these people require the most help.


Thus, mental health advocates and policymakers may want to take closer looks at how to better educate the general population on productive, effective ways to help those around them who may be suffering from mental health concerns. This is especially important as the number of youths reported with mental health concerns has risen with the pandemic. 52% of young respondents from the National Youth Council’s polls responded that they were facing difficulties with their mental well-being [8].



Moreover, when asked about where their perceptions stemmed from, most participants mentioned the media (67.9%) and their interactions with others with mental health issues (63.1%) as relevant factors.


These are interesting especially when considering how recent technological developments have impacted how mental health is seen and spoken of. The open and easy access to social media platforms allows people from all walks of life to have a platform to share their experiences. Platforms like TikTok and YouTube have allowed more who face mental health challenges to create open conversations on the topic, as well as spread greater awareness and debunk common misconceptions.


Interestingly, the impact of social media also coincided with the impact of the pandemic, which has been credited to have pushed the discourse of normalising mental health forward. Due to the pandemic, many people experienced lockdowns, which in turn led to a worsening of mental wellbeing and the greater need to engage in self-care. Such activities became popular to share on social media, with the hashtag #selfcaretiktok at 1 billion views as of 2022 [9].


Hence, such developments are reflected in our participants’ responses. The access of social media may have allowed them to interact with more content that were more positive portrayals of people with mental health concerns, which in turn could have shaped their perceptions. In addition, the continued push to normalise the topic of mental health could have also led to more people around them to be more open about their own struggles, which could inform how they perceive the group as well.


However, this is not to say traditional media has no role in influencing perceptions. Studies have found that in Singapore, media articles on mental health concerns were largely framed in a negative light. Conditions like personality disorder, paranoia, and brief psychotic disorders were amongst the top few most negatively portrayed [10]. These are incredibly harmful and continue to perpetuate stereotypes of people with mental health concerns. Given that the media has been found to be one of the most influential factors when shaping perceptions, it is vital for us to be more alert to how media outlets and films portray mental health. News outlets and organisations may also want to be more conscious of the language they use to speak about mental wellness and those facing mental health difficulties.


3.2. Mental Health in the Family Unit


The results reflected a significant difference between how mental wellness was perceived and discussed in different contexts.



80.7% of participants agreed that their friends would be supportive if they chose to share their own mental health issues with them. In contrast, when asked whether their parents would be supportive, only 58.5% of participants agreed.


Participants alerted us to a generation gap present between both groups. Some mentioned that their parents held conservative mindsets about mental wellness, such that mental health concerns would be diminished and dismissed. On the contrary, they felt that their friends were not judgmental and were better informed on mental health, and were more accepting.


These results are not surprising, especially when analysed in conjunction with results dissected in the previous section. As the topic of mental health becomes less stigmatised, mental health has now gradually been framed in a more positive light, encompassing aspects like self-care and mental wellness. These are a far cry from the negative portrayals and descriptions in the past that were largely tied to psychiatric disorders and conditions.


Hence, as youths understand that mental health is not something to be afraid of speaking of, it is likely they are more willing to hear a friend out. In addition, it is likely that their peers have had more good interactions with more people that have been open about their mental health concerns. In comparison, the older generations may feel more hesitant or fearful, as they associate the topic with negative connotations.


Moreover, as mentioned by participants, it is evident that greater awareness is important when trying to destigmatise conversations on mental health. As youths have a better understanding of mental wellness, they may be more understanding when it comes to hearing out a friend’s own struggles.


For policymakers and mental health advocates, this is an encouraging sign. Initiatives such as mental health lessons being progressively implemented in primary and secondary institutions over the course of two years are certainly a step in the right direction [11]. Yet, more can certainly be done, especially when it comes to engaging the older generation and parents, as these groups have been identified to be less supportive and also less knowledgeable when it comes to mental health.


3.3. Coping with Mental Health Issues



As a whole, participants expressed that they were coping well with stress and anxiety. 51.1% agreed that they were coping well or very well with anxiety, and 47.8% agreed they were coping well or very well with stress. However, there was a worrying proportion that conversely mentioned they were coping poorly. 16.1% of our participants mentioned they were having difficulties in managing anxiety. Similarly, 18.8% of participants feedbacked that they were coping poorly with stress.


The sizable proportion of those struggling with managing anxiety or stress could suggest that more may need to be done when it comes to educating our youth on how to practice good self-care, and how to seek professional help when needed. However, surprisingly, when asked about mental wellness services, a large majority were aware of how to utilise them if they were struggling. The most common services were counselling services, peer support groups and emergency hotlines such as the National Care Hotline and the SOS crisis hotline. This suggests that the issue does not lie in awareness, but rather the willingness to utilise said resources.



This trend was reflected in our survey participants. 37.8% of participants expressed a neutral sentiment, while 18.9% were unwilling and 43.1% were willing. Participants who stated they were unwilling recalled issues such as social stigma and their desire for anonymity, and also shared they felt uncomfortable sharing problems with people they did not know. There were also some who felt the process would be too troublesome and time-consuming.


Some maintained that they would try to solve their own problems themselves first, while others communicated that they felt the resources were qualified and would be beneficial for them to share. These mixed results suggested that more needs to be done to improve how youths view these outlets and resources. Perhaps organisations may want to tap on greater publicity and engagement with youths so that youths are given a better chance to understand and learn about the processes of said organisations, and build trust.


4. The Environment and Sustainability


In the next section, participants were asked various questions about their opinions on Singapore's environment and sustainability efforts. The first portion focused on their individual efforts toward promoting sustainability.



Participants were asked what steps they were currently taking to combat climate change. The most selected options were reducing their use of single-use plastic (59.3%), partaking in recycling efforts (58.4%) and choosing to use more environmentally-friendly modes of transport such as public transport (52.5%). Encouragingly, only 56 out of 801 respondents (6.9%) stated that they were not currently taking any actions to promote sustainability.


These results indicate that participants are willing to engage in more than one action in an effort to combat climate change, which reflects a desire to partake in sustainability efforts and care for the environment.



This strong desire amongst youth to combat climate change is similarly reflected in other responses. Participants were also asked about which lifestyle choice they were most comfortable adopting to help combat climate change. 91.5% of participants agreed to make one accommodation towards a more sustainable lifestyle. The most popular choices were reducing single-use plastic, buying second-hand clothing, and using more environmentally friendly modes of transport such as public transport.


Two out of the three actions (i.e reducing single-use plastic and using more environmentally friendly modes of transport) are currently aligned with what the government has been promoting. The National Environment Agency (NEA)’s Climate Action website encourages Singaporeans to adopt a 3R Lifestyle, which stands for reduce, reuse, recycle. [12] In addition, the government has encouraged more Singaporeans to adopt public transport as a sustainable alternative when commuting. [13] These suggest that government efforts may have been effective in influencing individuals to care more about sustainability efforts.


Interestingly, despite it not seeming like a mainstream media message when it comes to sustainability, buying second-hand clothing was amongst the most popular choices. Based on the 2020 Report by reselling platform ThredUp and Global Data, the secondhand apparel market is expected to grow from $28 billion in 2019 to nearly $64 million by 2024. [14] This result could be attributed to a few causes. Firstly, the trend could reflect the work of community-based efforts. With more knowledge on fast fashion and consumers becoming more environmentally conscious, thrifting (i.e buying second hand-clothing) has become popular as a sustainable way to shop.


In addition, thrifting has also become popularised on social media. Popular social media platforms like TikTok and YouTube have content dedicated to thrift hauls and thrift flips (i.e reworking second-hand pieces to become something new). Popular content creators can average nearly two to three million views on videos regarding their thrifted finds. [15] [16] Social media thus highlights the pros of buying second-hand, enticing consumers to go to thrift shops to find one-of-a-kind pieces at affordable prices.



Participants also demonstrated keenness toward community-led initiatives for the environment. 61.6% of participants had participated in at least one activity concerning the environment, and 89.8% of participants expressed interest in exploring at least one activity concerning the environment and sustainability. This is an optimistic sign that suggests youths view environmental concerns as important to consider when it comes to Singapore’s future.


However, there is a gap present between participation rates and interests. These seem to suggest that more can be done to engage youths and for more youths to get involved, especially given that there is a large proportion of youths that are interested in exploring these activities.

Thus, for future youth engagement, organisers can consider working from actions and individual efforts that youths are currently partaking in and would be most comforting adopting. Based on our findings, the majority of youths are interested in exploring recycling projects in particular. This corroborates with how 58% of youths are already partaking in the same kind of recycling efforts. Hence, recycling initiatives may be the easiest way to expand individual action into community-led initiatives.



When discussing the Singapore Green Plan, a sizeable proportion of participants shared they were poorly informed of the plan. Only 25.9% of participants stated they were informed, while the majority of 41.6% of participants indicated they were poorly or very poorly informed.


It is concerning that many youths lack knowledge about the key environmental policy and government movement to combat climate change, especially as the Singapore Green Plan is presented as a long-term, continuous whole-of-nation movement, and youths are the future leaders of Singapore. These could indicate issues with communication and efforts to engage and educate youths on environmental efforts at the organisational (i.e university) and governmental levels. Much more can be done to actively engage and encourage youth involvement, so as to better inform them.


As mentioned previously, organisations and the government may want to consider activities youths are already interested in and build from there. For example, organisations can tap into recycling projects, which is likely to increase youth engagement, while also increasing youth awareness about various efforts and policies.


Furthermore, most students (41.3%) indicated that they neither agree nor disagree that Singapore was doing enough for sustainability. It is alarming that participants mostly had a neutral opinion regarding Singapore’s sustainability efforts. This could be linked to a lack of knowledge and understanding of Singapore’s environmental policies.


Such findings are concerning because the scientific community internationally and locally have a consensus that climate change is a significant and existential issue. This is also acknowledged by the government, especially with the reinforcement and expansion of sustainability efforts and policies such as the SG Green Plan. Thus, if youths are unaware, uninterested and uninvolved, it poses significant challenges to addressing and resolving climate change. This also means that youth will have a more difficult time in taking steps to mitigate and adapt to climate change.


For the environmental sector and community in Singapore, such results may also serve as a wake-up call. With social media activism and various community-led initiatives implemented, it may appear that much is being done, however, the survey’s findings say otherwise. More still needs to be done to raise awareness and engagement on the issues amongst the general youth population.


Likewise, only 37.2% of participants agreed that they were aware of university-led initiatives to combat climate change, and only 32.7% felt the university-led initiatives were effective in addressing environmental concerns. These point to similar issues on the lack of awareness and engagement. This is surprising as NUS has been gearing up their sustainability efforts. For example, NUS has made a commitment under the sustainABLE NUS campaign [17], and has established the University Sustainability and Climate Action Council. Environmental student group NUS SAVE (Students Against Violation Of The Earth) has continued sustainability efforts in NUS with their implementation of the Plastic Bag Tax initiative starting from 2008, and Project Box & Project Tumbler in 2010 and 2012 respectively [18].


The survey findings once again provide a wake-up call for the university to expand and broaden outreach and engagement, to make a concerted effort to avoid becoming an echo chamber. Given that a majority of respondents do not feel the university initiatives are effective, they suggest that there may be issues pertaining to communication and awareness, or these initiatives may appear to be inadequate. In addition, the lack of confidence in the university’s efforts could potentially point to how youths may think that organisations are the ones that need, can and should do more, but are not following through.

In addition, respondents expressed that they were unsure of what Singapore’s Green Plan was doing. Some participants also held misconceptions about the Green Plan. For example, activities such as reducing waste, reducing plastic and paper straws use, and recycling were cited as examples of the Singapore Green Plan.


The lack of awareness and even misinformation on governmental policies and efforts is extremely concerning, especially since youths are not likely to be involved in combating climate change with low awareness of the issues. The results suggest more should be done with regard to publicity in educating the general population, given that many of them have been shown to be very interested in sustainability.


Moreover, some aspects of the Green Plan are more well known than others. Those who were informed mentioned key aspects such as building solar panels, planting more trees, as well as the government’s push for fewer carbon emissions. These may be as these aspects are often featured in the news, and are often cited by government officials and agencies. For policymakers, more can be done to actively educate youths and the general populace on less well-known aspects of the Singapore Green Plan. For example, aspects linked to the energy, construction, building, transport and aviation industries were not commonly mentioned by participants, despite them tending to be the bigger players and more significant aspects when it came to contributing to climate change.


Lastly, when asked about the Singapore Green Plan, not many respondents were able to highlight the broad essence and drive of the movement. Perhaps this is a sign that youths feel organisations and governments should take the spotlight when it comes to the movement towards sustainability, such as big-scale projects like installing solar panels or planting trees. For the movement towards sustainability, these results may be a sign that more can be done to highlight how combating climate change requires broad-based and widespread efforts and changes in various aspects, and all these need to come together to link and work together. In conjunction, more emphasis needs to be placed on what youths can do and be involved in on an individual and community level.


Conclusion


The environment and sustainability, as well as concerns pertaining to mental health appear to remain pertinent issues that youths find important for Singapore’s future, and it can be said that much progress has been made in both areas. However, the findings have also shown that much more can be done, and should be done to better address various concerns youths have.


Through this survey, there are major takeaways for each topic. For mental health, policymakers and mental health advocates may want to look at how the topic can be better normalised and destigmatised amongst the older crowd, especially as stigma remains prevalent in that group. Moreover, television studios and filmmakers may want to turn their attention to their portrayals of those facing mental health difficulties and explore how to do it in a sensitive and tasteful manner.


Under the environment and sustainability, the findings have highlighted the large gaps in communication when it comes to the Singapore Green Plan. Policymakers and organisers need to do more to better expand outreach with the youth and increase youth engagement, so that more are better informed of nation-wide policies regarding sustainability. This is doable, given that many youths have indicated they are interested in efforts pertaining to sustainability.


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