Anxiety is a universal experience that transcends borders, race, language, but have we ever stopped to think about how our lives in Singapore affect the way we face it?
Singapore’s general approach to mental health struggles, such as anxiety, can be observed in many aspects of our society. For one, the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) describes anxiety as “an unwarranted or inappropriate fear or response to a vague or ill-defined threat.” The aforementioned bolded words frame anxiety as an experience that is not normal, alienating the quotidian experience that so many Singaporeans deal with. The repetition of such negative adjectives in a government organization’s published definition points to the larger issue in Singapore’s approach to anxiety. Though there may be efforts to work against this emotional plague, these ideas that are being propagated could do more harm than good.
When discussing anxiety there are many perspectives to consider. For one, whether anxiety will be discussed as a medical diagnosis or emotion. For the purpose of this article, I will be discussing anxiety as an emotion. This conclusion drew from a survey I conducted where 72.7% of respondents stated that their anxiety is undiagnosed. As I approach this discussion about the experience of anxiety that is specific to the Singaporean context, it is important to consider that such a topic cannot be comprehensively explored in a short article and would take years of research to fully and justifiably understand. As such, I will be touching on 3 main aspects;
Each society is uniquely different offering its own experience. An individual facing anxiety in the United Kingdom (UK) would encounter it in a vastly different way than us in Singapore. In fact, this can be seen when comparing the previously stated definition Singapore provides with that of the National Health Service (NHS) of the UK. In their terms, “Generalised anxiety disorder” is defined as “a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe.” While I do not claim this definition to be perfect, the impression it propagates about anxiety contrasts greatly with the one published by IMH. Even the word “generalized” in its title acknowledges the nuances of each individual’s experience and how it is impossible to quantify this complex feeling into a simple definition. Despite the many factors that contribute to heightened anxiety in Singapore, one that undeniably characterises our society is its academic rigor. In the survey, I conducted, more than half mentioned that their anxiety was academically-induced. It is almost comical to think about this overwhelming struggle we all share in the Singaporean education system that, on a larger scale, was seemingly created to holistically support its students. Many, including myself, are quick to claim that our education system is “flawed” but on a deeper level, what are these flaws? What is it about the system that expedites the progression of our anxiety? As with any other Singapore student, the first things that come to mind are meritocracy, the lack of education about mental health, and the prioritization of academics over our mental well-being to the point where taking a break for yourself is seen as a poor use of time. The fact that these come to mind so quickly as a result of our shared experience only serves to validate this direct correlation, highlighting the importance of intentional institutional change. It is easy to talk about what we can personally do to help ourselves but what action can be taken to spark change that will work towards ending this cycle altogether? This is where the aforementioned institutional change can make a difference. It is through changing the very social structures that govern the way our education system is organized that a significant impact can take place. So I will leave you with this, how can we, as youth, call for this action to be taken? What can we do beyond ourselves to make the Singapore academic experience more forgiving and enjoyable? One approach could be through tackling the culturally rooted approach to mental health as a “taboo” topic. Despite anxiety being a widespread experience, there is a stigma that results in society avoiding having to face it head-on. This results in shared beliefs that frame anxiety as a weakness or flaw. Hence, we can take action by making conversations about anxiety part of our quotidian vocabulary. In this way, we can work towards creating a safe space for those facing anxiety to be able to voice it out and overcome it alongside trusted friends so that it no longer feels like a private, alienating experience.
When discussing the experience of anxiety in a society, understanding how those within the society understand and perceive it is key. Without doing so, working to create a more open approach to mental health would remain difficult. To gain a statistically objective initial understanding of this, we can consider the study done in 2017 with Singaporean youth by Cigna where “44.5% of respondents associated mental illnesses with negative, derogatory terms like “stupid”, “dangerous”, “crazy” and “weird”, while 46.2% of them said they would be “very embarrassed” if they were diagnosed with a mental illness.” This idea of shame that has been attached to anxiety and mental illness as a whole can be drawn back to our Asian roots where familial reputation holds a high priority. Various religious belief systems have their own interpretation of mental health. Singapore, being a melting pot of cultures where religions intersect every day, results in the culmination of these perceptions. This ultimately manifests in the belief that mental illness is contagious, a curse, or even a punishment by the gods, to name a few. While religious beliefs are not to be shamed, such propagated shared knowledge results in intense stigmatization. This stigma is the beginning of a damaging cycle that results in blatant ignorance of the struggle causing long-term detrimental effects that can go on to affect future relationships, jobs or daily life. This can even be experienced internally through self-stigmatization that is understood simply as “a mark of shame that you put on yourself”. Self-stigmatization is an often disregarded experience that causes feelings of unworthiness and alienation that only serve to intensify mental illness. While the way anxiety is understood in Singapore is certainly much more profound and can be explored through a lengthy dissertation, this gives us initial insight into where stereotypes and stigma draw from.
In any instance, one cannot achieve full understanding until they have a personal experience, this is particularly the case with anxiety. Despite this, with the corroboration of sources including my survey and other readings, I will try my best to give an initial insight into the Singapore context. The experience of anxiety in Singapore has a direct link to how it is perceived. In our Asian society, anxiety and other mental illnesses often take a back seat in our quotidian lives whether it is in school, the workplace, or at home. Those exhibiting signs of anxiety may be labeled as “oversensitive”, “dramatic”, or dismissed as a “common” unimportant occurrence that they will get over with time. While progress has been made and there has been a greater push for mental health awareness in institutions, social media, and casual conversations, many respondents to my survey expressed that they have “never told anyone”. Thus, I want to place a greater emphasis on ways to ease and improve the experience of anxiety in Singapore. There are various methods of accessible and confidential aid that are available to us in Singapore. This includes (to name a few);
1. Touchline by Touch Youth Services
They provide emotional support and practical advice to youth.
Monday – Friday | 9am – 6pm
2. Caregivers Alliance Limited
Supports caregivers or friends of those facing mental illness.
Main Line: 6460 4400
Caregivers Support Centre: 6388 2686
3. Samaritans of Singapore (SOS)
Provides confidential emotional support for those in crisis, thinking of suicide, or affected by suicide.
Seeking help for anxiety can be achieved through alternative means such as a trusted adult, teacher, counselling, or therapy. Silver Ribbon is an organisation that offers a complimentary counselling service available to anyone. You can access it through their webpage and easily book your slot online.
To end this discussion, a lot remains to be done to create greater awareness and acceptance of anxiety and mental illness in our society. While change will not be immediate, it is possible if enough people care. Your journey with anxiety and mental health does not end with struggle, this is an affirmation that your feelings are shared by a vast number of people not only in Singapore but across the world. Each of our journeys to greater peace is different, some may be fast, some a little slower, but one thing remains; each individual experience is valid and conquerable