Beyond stigma, there’s a role for mental health education

The 2012 Singapore Mental Health Study reported that 5.8% of the local adult population are affected by depression during their lifetime. The researchers of the study found that only a third of those with a mental illness in their lifetime had sought the help of mental health professionals (Today Online, 13 Oct 2015).

According to the same study, only 10% of the population did not subscribe to the belief that those with a mental illness “could get better if they wanted to” (The Straits Times, 6 Oct 2015). The other 90% would likely agree that “a person who has mental illness is seen as someone who is weak” (The Straits Times, “A healthy mind isn’t a given for anyone”, 10 Feb 2016) and that “depression is a failure of will” (The New York Times, “7 Thoughts From a Chronically Unhappy Person”, 21 April 2015).

But stigma is not the only reason why people who experience symptoms of depression, burnout, or anxiety do not seek professional help. Aside from prejudicial attitudes, the ability to recognise the warning signs of psychological distress remain a major barrier to mental health care. A 2015 study of 2219 Canadian employees revealed that of the participants objectively identified by the study authors to be experiencing depression, more than half “did not recognize a need to seek help” (ScienceDaily, 7 Oct 2015). But the fact of the matter is that poor mental health literacy is not unique to the community of that study. A 2014 study by IMH on local residents’ understanding of common mental disorders including depression revealed that just over half the respondents surveyed were able to accurately identify the signs and symptoms of depression (Channel News Asia, 6 Oct 2015).

Yes, we should support campaigns to reduce stigma. But, it would only be successful if it were to be accompanied by mental health education programmes which are not only about dementia (it is the only one of the top 3 mental health conditions of local concern) but which also reach the community including those in school and those in the workforce.

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Executive coaching is not for life

We know a coach as someone who demands drills on the field and laps in the pool or that comfortable but speedy curtain-clad air-conditioned double-decker which delivers customers at the doorstep of the newest mall across the causeway. It’s also that classic Vespa light blue leather must-have, complete with requisite tassels, zips, and shoulder strap.

Executive Coaching

But there’s another kind of coaching that’s becoming increasingly ubiquitous.

Life coaches aim to help people reach their goals, as this article indicates. Life coaches may however not have the training, skills, or empathetic aptitude they should be equipped with, as the author of this article discovers. In fact, data from this study suggest that a substantial proportion of those who seek help from a life coach show signs of depression. As such, it seems important for life coaches to have received adequate and appropriate training. As this CBS Moneywatch article suggests, the importance of being coached by a professional life coach cannot be overemphasized. Even so, there are benefits to life coaching: Specifically, evidence-based life coaching has been shown to improve psychological wellbeing (Green, Oades, & Grant, 2006) and help clients achieve and strive for their goals (Spence & Grant, 2005).

There is another sort of coaching known as business coaching. This is where business owners receive advice about growing their business. The kind where social enterprises receive guidance from peers in the same industry under a scheme hosted by the Ministry of Social and Family Development. And in the same vein as Social Inc., the Channel News Asia programme, in which new social enterprise start-ups receive mentorship from established business owners in the same industry. The benefits are not only qualitative (read this blog), but quantitative (read this article).

And then there’s executive coaching, which based on a definition by Kilburg (1996), involves using cognitive and behavioural techniques to help a manager/supervisor improve his/her performance, wellbeing, and effectiveness of his/her organization. To be distinguished from mentorship, which facilitates an employee’s professional and career development (here’s a fact sheet), executive coaching provides a structured environment in which managers or supervisors work with the coach to identify and meet specific and short-term (even immediate) goals to solve work-related issues.

Evidence from research including random controlled studies, indicates that the cognitive-behavioural solution-focused approach brings about goal attainment, increased mental resilience, improved psychological wellbeing, and reduced stress levels. Other studies report benefits which extend beyond a six-fold return-on-investment to include improvements in teamwork, relationships, job satisfaction and performance.

But as this Harvard Business Review notes, the results can also be a bit of a mixed bag. Much depends on the coaches hired. There is certainly value in hiring someone with senior corporate management experience (“Coaching the Next Generation“, Straits Times, 2004), particularly since executive coaches need to have insight into “the demands of the leadership roles from first-line supervision to middle management to the top executive” (APA, 2002). At the same time, there is also value in hiring someone trained to handle underlying interpersonal relationship issues (“Coaching the coaches“, Psychology Today, 2009).

Moreover, there is funding available to support executive coaching initiatives. Training staff through executive coaching (using local funding such as the Productivity and Innovation Credit scheme and Capability Development Grant from the National Productivity and Continuing Education Council’s Way to Go! campaign) meets the target of enhancing productivity by helping managers and supervisors optimize employee engagement. It’s not for life but it will give you a head start in the corporate world.

Coping With Crisis

Since the Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 disappeared off the radar, media reports include a press briefing by Malaysia Public Service Department Psychology Management Division director Dr Abd Halim Mohd Hussin, who said that, “We know that it is extremely difficult and distressing for the family to wait for the updates but as of now they are handling their emotion well through the help of our 37 caregivers and counsellors” (New Straits Times, 11 March 2014). Our local news channel, Channel News Asia, interviews Dr Marlene Lee about the psychological trauma faced by the families affected.

CNA interview: Coping with crisis