Just because mental health issues are not as apparent as physical health issues, i.e., a bloodied wound does not mean that we pay less attention to mental health issues. When we accidentally cut ourselves, we know to wash the wound and then apply a plaster. However, do we know what to do when we suffer some psychological harm or injury? We demand of ourselves that we just “get over it”, or to someone who is feeling depressed, we might convince them to just “look at the brighter side of things”. However, as those who have received such advice, this is very frustrating to listen to.

Emotional First Aid

Psychologist Guy Winch suggests that we can learn how to apply emotional first aid to our psychological wounds, e.g., rejection, failure and depression. Emotional wounds may cause us to struggle and be incapacitated the same way physical wounds do, and thus we need to learn how to take care when we experience emotional pain.

Just as physical pain alerts us that there is something wrong in the body and we need to address it, emotional pain points us to a psychological wound that requires attention. Leaving our psychological wounds can be very dangerous, and is akin to leaving an open physical wound susceptible to infection and further complications. 

Watch this video for Winch’s TED talk on emotional first aid.

Here are emotional first aid tools proposed by Winch to treat two very common modern ailments:

Loneliness: We are social creatures and thrive on interaction with others. When we find ourselves spending more time alone, our self-esteem is damaged as we start thinking that there is something wrong with us. 

The treatment of loneliness requires that we challenge negative perceptions. Instead of thinking that our friends are prioritizing their significant others over us, perhaps we can think about how our friends’ relationships may be blooming or how this gives us space to develop ourselves. Furthermore, it is also about creating opportunities for social interaction, to keep showing up for ourselves and looking for friends with common interests.

Failure: Failure affects us when we do not accomplish what we set out to do. It may seem that the failure is casting aspersions on our capabilities and competence. Thus our self-esteem suffers because we come to distorted conclusions about ourselves.

The treatment of failure is to focus on the factors that are within our control. Often, a failure is due to extrinsic circumstances and thus it should not be affecting how we feel about ourselves. In any case, having a growth mindset helps us to think about how failure teaches us about how to do things differently or become a better person.

Ultimately, it is about developing self-compassion for ourselves. When we experience emotional pain, it is critical that we avoid putting ourselves down. If there is a negative, critical voice in our heads, then we can imagine what we would say to a friend who is going through these same feelings.

 

Mental Health First Aid

Australia has pioneered the mental health first aid training, which aims to train lay persons with the skills to support others who are developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis. Mental health first aiders learn how to provide the first responses to those who are suffering from mental health issues, and also to learn how to refer others to mental health professionals.

The international program of mental health first aid seeks to build mental health literacy, helping the public identify and respond to signs of mental illness. In the US, where the mental health first aid program has been adapted, the goal is to make mental health first aid training as common as CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) training. 

Even though mental health first aiders are not trained in psychology, they learn how to support the individual until professional help arrives. For instance, if someone is contemplating suicide, the mental health first aider is able to listen to and support the individual in crisis while waiting for the police to arrive. First aiders also learn to support the people around them through issues of depression, mood disorders and anxiety.

Mental Health Days

In Singapore, most organisations require a medical certificate to prove that one is unwell so that your leave of absence from work or school can be justified. But what about those who do not feel up to showing up for work or school for mental health reasons? You would either have to fake physical symptoms to malinger for a medical certificate or just consume your regular leave. 

There is a bill introduced in New York that would allow for schools to consider a student’s mental or behavioural health issues as permitted reasons for absence from school. It aims to remove the stigma associated with mental health and to help students get the emotional support they need. With such legislation, it is hoped that there would be fewer absences from school as overstressed students are able to take time off to recharge.

 

Questions for further personal evaluation: 

  1. If Singapore schools allowed students to take mental health days, do you think this system would be abused? If so, how would you minimise the chance of abuse?
  2. What can authorities do to promote better mental health awareness in Singapore? Do you think Singapore and would be interested in mental health first aid training? Why or why not?

 

Useful vocabulary: 

  1. aspersion’: attack on the reputation or integrity of someone or something
  2. extrinsic’: coming or operating from outside 

 

Here are more related articles for further reading:

  1. Today: Anthea Ong, a Nominated Member of Parliament, argues for compulsory mental health education in Singapore

We can do more beyond the occasional assembly talks on mental health, optional enrichment classes on wellness and offers of counselling as interventions for behaviour modification (which in any case is often construed as punishment by students).

Simply introducing an additional period to the formal curriculum for mental health education will not necessarily be effective and will most certainly increase the workload on our teachers. We must think outside the box. 

One way is to expand the current physical health education curriculum to total health education. This will help ingrain in students the idea that there is no health without mental health.

We should, for example, include in our traditional line-up of sports during PE periods, somatic movement exercises where students will be taught to focus mainly on the internal sensations of certain slow and deliberate movements.

 

  1. PBS: Disaster relief efforts must consider psychological first aid 

The danger of these disasters lies not only in the tremendous loss of life and property, but also in the psychological toll they take on survivors. When disaster strikes, mental health support should be a top priority. Amidst the chaos, though, it often isn’t.

Sadness, shock, anxiety, and fear are normal stress responses for those who live through a natural disaster. For many of them, these feelings fade away. For others, though, they persist, affecting their quality of life and ability to function. Survivors of natural disasters are at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

Psychological first aid — a strategy for addressing psychological distress after a disaster — may help build resilience and mitigate the effects of overwhelming trauma and loss. This isn’t just counseling or debriefing. It provides survivors with emotional support, coping skills, and connections to practical services.”

 

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