[OPINION] Why mental health must be a priority in this time of vulnerability and loss

My friend *Andrew succumbed to cancer this Easter Sunday. His death on the day of Jesus’ resurrection brought some comfort to his family, but it did occur during Singapore's circuit breaker period, which saw the implementation of social distancing limiting the number of people allowed to congregate together. I found myself watching the funeral via Zoom, deprived of the opportunity to place a flower atop the coffin to say our final goodbye and offer words of comfort to his family. (READ: Singapore reports record jump in coronavirus infections)

His family was not even allowed to sit together at the funeral, so it made for a strangely awkward final sendoff to their only son, as they listened to the pastor deliver her sermon on eternal sleep. Social distancing also meant his parents could not clasp each other’s trembling hands, as they saw the coffin containing their first-born enter the furnace. It was clinical at best, devoid of any human touch throughout the funeral and over in about 30 minutes to make way for the next allotted sendoff. Not even the piped-in tune of Amazing Grace could soften this disconnect. 

COVID-19 has destroyed lives, jobs, and economies, prompting  governments to pull out all stops to contain this unseen enemy. But what about the other unseen enemy that has been sitting under our noses all this time? How is Singapore's mental health affected by death, physical and psychological illnesses, family strife, job losses, and economic struggles that make up the humdrum of our daily lives pre-COVID-19? Throw COVID-19 and the circuit breaker rules into the mix, and you have a mental health crisis on the brink of implosion. (READ: 'Dead city': Singapore closes workplaces in virus fight)

Just last month, NMP (Nominated Member of Parliament) Anthea Ong asked for a National Suicide Prevention Strategy, as a follow up to her Budget 2020 speech when she asked the Singaporean government to fully commit to mental health. Ong asked how a first world nation was not tackling suicide rates, which prompted Senior Minister of State for Health Dr Amy Khor to push for a whole-of-government review of Singapore's mental health strategy in the coming months to identify gaps and strengthen existing inter-agency efforts.

Yet, one month later during the first week of the circuit breaker, the government decided that psychological treatment was not considered an essential service, like hairdressers, and that only patients at risk of harming themselves or others would be allowed face-to-face treatment. This decision was strangely at odds with the government’s offer of free counseling, which seems to make mental health a priority during this crisis. 

What seems clear is that in the context of the circuit breaker rules, mental health becomes a priority only when self-harm or harm to others occurs. Any signs of anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive behavior can wait. But can they?

The greatest pain a parent has to bear is  to “bury” their child, but to “bury” while social distancing can affect the grieving process and add to the suffering. It is unlikely Andrew’s parents will hurt themselves nor others in their grief, but how does such a ruling, which allows them to get a haircut but not see a mental health professional, say about calls to develop resilience during a personal crisis atop a national one? 

Technology, texting, and video conferencing are wonderful, but humans are wired for real connection. According to grief expert David Kessler, who had to deal with losing his own son, grief must be witnessed. The author of Finding Meaning – The Sixth Stage of Grief writes that each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprint, but what they all share in common is the need for this grief to be witnessed. It’s the need to be fully present to the magnitude of their loss without trying to point out the silver lining.  

Grieving is not limited to the loss of lives. COVID-19 is a collective loss in the way we live our lives and the meanings we attach to them. We are grieving over the loss of our jobs but also our self-esteem and confidence. We are grieving the loss of our freedom to move, but also the loss of connecting with friends, even if they are not our next of kin. We are grieving the loss of our basic human need to feel belonged, accepted, and loved, and all grief must be witnessed.

I don’t know why mental health is still not a priority during these times, but I can only hope that in these extraordinary times of shared vulnerability, we can drop the armor, be curious, and put on the cloak of empathy to find meaning in all that we do. – Rappler.com

James Leong is a Singapore-based private counselor at Listen without Prejudice.