Singapore youths suffering from depression, anxiety missed 24 days of school on average: study

Survey by Duke-NUS and IMH highlights effects that mental health woes have on children, urges early intervention

Shedding Light on Silent Struggles: A recent survey reveals the impact of depression and anxiety on Singaporean children and young adults, resulting in a concerning number of missed school days.
Shedding Light on Silent Struggles: A recent survey reveals the impact of depression and anxiety on Singaporean children and young adults, resulting in a concerning number of missed school days. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — Children and young adults in Singapore have been significantly affected by symptoms of depression and anxiety, leading to an alarming number of missed school days.

This is according to a study conducted by Duke-NUS Medical School and the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), which surveyed 991 parents with children aged four to 21 - totalling 1,515 youths - to gain insights into the state of youth mental health in the country.

The initial screening survey identified 104 parents whose children had depression or anxiety symptoms. These parents then filled out a more comprehensive survey with questions on school absences, school performance and healthcare utilisation.

The study found that, on average, these Singaporean children missed approximately 24 days of school in the past year due to the two mental health issues, while their school performance dropped by an estimated 63 per cent.

Furthermore, two out of three individuals made unplanned visits to emergency departments, with over half of them being hospitalised.

The financial implications of these mental health struggles are also substantial. The survey revealed that parents, on average, spent $10,250 on medical care for each child's mental health condition. When extrapolated to the population level, this amounted to an estimate of $1.2 billion.

Untreated mental health conditions

Professor Eric Finkelstein, a health economist from Duke-NUS' health services and systems research and senior author of the study, emphasised the long-term consequences of untreated mental health conditions among youth.

He explained, "The real effects of untreated mental health conditions among youth will extend well into adulthood, when they are less able to obtain rewarding and high-paying jobs due to poor school performance and other challenges resulting from their illness."

The parents’ responses in the survey - which was conducted between April and June 2022 - indicated that nearly 12 per cent of the youths had symptoms consistent with depression, while approximately 13 per cent had symptoms consistent with anxiety.

In total, 16.2 per cent of the youths were reported to have symptoms consistent with at least one of these conditions. Despite this, only 15 per cent had a formal diagnosis from a health professional, suggesting that many remain untreated.

The role of early intervention in youth mental health

Highlighting the importance of early intervention, IMH chief executive Daniel Fung, who co-authored the study, stated, "These findings point to the importance of early intervention to help reduce the risk of long-term complications and improve outcomes.

"For instance, if the parent recognises the symptoms and knows what to do, they could encourage the child to talk about it or suggest getting some help."

Both he and Prof Finkelstein stressed the need for screening programs to identify mental health conditions early in children and adults. Prof Finkelstein also emphasised the importance of implementing peer support programs and actively working to de-stigmatise mental health.

He concluded, "With the high prevalence and costs of mental illness among both children and adults, a successful mental health strategy should take on the same level of urgency as Singapore's war on diabetes."

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