We asked our very own RGC counsellors about Rafflesians’ mental health, signs of distress, ways to help and how to deal with uncertainties.
The pandemic has taken its toll on us, not just physically but on our minds too. The sudden and unexpected changes it has brought to our daily lives has created a sense of constant fear, worry and anxiety in many of us Rafflesians.
As if that was not enough, the tragic incident at River Valley High School on 19 July once again threw students’ mental well-being into the spotlight. Later we came to know that the 16-year old perpetrator had been suffering from severe mental issues and had attempted suicide two years ago. President Halimah Yacob commented that “attempted suicides are a real cry for help”, adding that students needed much more support regarding their mental well-being.
In these times of uncertainty, what can we as a Rafflesian community do for our mental well-being at large? Why do some of us suffer in the first place? With some help from our very own RGC counsellors, Mr Zullkarnain and Ms Yvonne Ng, we answer these questions from a Rafflesian perspective.
Why some of us experience mental issues
Change may be the only constant, but some changes come easier than others.
Rafflesians are experiencing teenagehood – a time of internal transition and change. Change not just in terms of physical growth due to puberty, but in terms of our thoughts, emotions, and treatment of relationships.
On the home front, we may experience family struggles, because teenagers need autonomy and independence from parents who are not as willing to give it to us. For example, students’ increased use of technology, of mobile devices, are frequently the causes of parent-child conflicts.
In school, students are undergoing external changes. Students experience the transition from primary to secondary school, followed by the change of class from Year 2 to Year 3. Academic workload increases alarmingly, schedules once empty become packed and new expectations about how one should behave are seemingly unbearable. Heightened stress levels manifest themselves as poor mental well-being.
Changes in school also involve changes in relationships. Students coming from different schools or different classes may struggle to make friends, which could lead to isolation. There is robust evidence to show that loneliness significantly increases the chances of anxiety and even depression.
Things became a lot worse when the pandemic hit. School, which once encouraged Rafflesians to interact with our peers, now instruct us to keep our distance, not talk to one another and stay alone. No discussion is allowed during lessons and intermingling between classes is forbidden. While these measures are indeed necessary, they undoubtedly contribute to the students’ sense of isolation.
People all around us are getting infected, shops close down, HBL arrives out of the blue, we return to school, CCA is cancelled, daily cases spike again. The disruption to daily activities and changes to everyday lifestyles has instilled fear, paranoia and uncertainty in many of us and as a consequence, our mental well-being suffers.
Signs of distress
Rafflesians spend most of our waking hours in school with our classmates. In addition, as students we are often very close to our peers and share with each other things we do not share with parents or teachers, making classmates the best people to find out if a student is in need of help.
Identifying signs of distress is about observing and taking notice of patterns, or more accurately, changes in patterns. Here are some common signs we should take note of:
- Unusual behaviour. If your friends are in distress, you can notice it in the way they behave, in the way they carry themselves, in their levels of confidence. It could be as simple as changes in eating patterns – they stop going down to eat during breaks because they lack the appetite, or the other way round.
- Difference in mood. If you notice anyone who always seems on edge or has frequent emotional outbursts, you should start worrying. Students in distress can be irritable when they are not usually irritable, or even happy when they are not usually happy. Regardless of whether it is a positive or negative change, it is a source of concern.
- Withdrawal from social contacts. This is a telling sign if your classmates are in distress. They may suddenly stop hanging out with those they usually hang out with, or leave WhatsApp group chats and Discord servers they are usually active in.
- Lack of energy and interest. If your friend seems lethargic or loses interest in things he is usually passionate about, that is an outward sign of distress. It could also be problematic if he has trouble staying awake during lessons, because changes in sleep patterns are common stress symptoms.
- Absenteeism. In extreme cases, students may not turn up for classes or CCA sessions regularly.
How we can help
As much as some of us would like to reach out to our friends in need, it is not always just that simple and going about it the wrong way can be counterproductive. Here are some things we can do to help:
- Offer support. Tell them you are always available. Considering the unmatchable ego of Rafflesians, when we ask them if they need help, they will most likely say “no”. But to know that there will always be somebody there for them may get them to be more willing to share.
- Make observations, not judgements. Do not ask “What’s wrong with you?” straight away; regardless of your intentions, they may feel judged and become defensive. Always make observations in a factual and neutral way, with no values and no judgement on them, then ask if there is anything wrong. A simple “I notice this, what’s happening?” will suffice.
- Direct them to the RGC counsellors (and offer to accompany them). If you are at a loss about how to help, do not add that extra responsibility and stress onto yourself; the RGC counsellors are always there to help. “We don’t ask too many questions, allow students to warm up us, then get them to share when they feel comfortable enough. We can give assurances and validate their feelings when possible,” Ms Yvonne says.
“Ultimately, the student’s safety and well-being are of our utmost concern. We just want to make sure that he’s OK, that he’s safe,” says Mr Zul.
It can be as simple as saying “If you’re going to see a counsellor, I can go with you.” The counsellors say it is not a problem to them. If they are worried about seeing the counsellors alone, we can always offer to accompany them, at least for their first meeting.
- Be curious. Always be in that state of curiosity and be ready to identify signs of distress. Ultimately, Rafflesians in distress will need their classmates’ help sooner rather than later.
If we did not already have enough on our plates from the pandemic’s disastrous tour, recent happenings would have shaken many of us to the core.
Always remember that it is perfectly normal to have questions about what had happened and what is happening, and that it is alright not to have answers to those questions. It is fine to feel scared, angry, or anxious; it reminds you that you are only human and have a full range of emotions, and that is normal. Emotional reactions are always normal in a less than normal situation.
If these emotions get too overwhelming, it will be good to speak to a parent, a counsellor or even a close friend about it, to process your thoughts and emotions arising from those thoughts. Never dismiss them, and do not keep them to yourself. Talk to someone.
Last but not least, the RGC counsellors would like to tell us that they welcome any student who could use some help. The door is always open, though you need to ring the bell to get in.