Answering questions concerning suicide in the 13th Parliamentary Session, the Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin said that grassroots activities plays an important role to prevent suicide.
In the session, Non-Constituency Member of Parliament from Workers’ Party Dennis Tan Lip Fong asked the Minister for Social and Family Development (MSF) about suicides:
- What is the number of people who have committed suicide or attempted suicide each year in the past five years;
- How many were aged 60 and above;
- How many of these seniors were living by themselves and how many were living with their families; and,
- What resources and programs are currently in place to help to address the likely causes of such suicides and to prevent the suicide rates from increasing.
The Minister answered that between 2011 and 2015, in average, there was about 415 deaths from suicides each year, of which 116 (28 percent) involved persons aged 60 and above.
In terms of trends, for the elderly specifically, there are no particular trends picked up. MSFD also do not have the breakdown of the living arrangements of the persons committing suicide.
It is not simple to label the reasons of suicides because the issues are social, relationship, family, mental health and sometimes a combination of various factors that causes persons to take their own lives.
The Minister said, to raise awareness on suicide prevention, encourage distressed persons to seek help, and provide professional support and crisis intervention, MSFD uses four-ways approach:
- The public education: Seniors are taught social-emotional and self-care skills, and how to seek help if necessary under the Seniors Health Curriculum, which is rolled out by Health Promotion Board (HPB), as part of National Seniors’ Health Program.
- Active outreach and support: Such as Senior Activity Centres (SACs) which conduct social activities and carry out home visits to reach out to elderly; the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC) which works with community-based organisations, including the SACs, to support seniors who may be at risk of depression and dementia, through the Community Resource, Engagement and Support Teams (CREST) program.
- The crisis response effort: Those in distress or who are facing crises should call the Samaritans of Singapore, which operates a 24-hour hotline. Institute of Mental Health (IMH) also operates a 24-hour Mental Health Helpline manned by counselors who can assess and activate home visit teams.
- Families and community: Individuals need to raise self-awareness, be self-aware and recognise tell-tale signs so that they can seek help early when feeling overwhelmed and emotionally distressed. But families and the community – the people who live around us – should also take responsibility. They must help to pick up signs of distress and render emotional support, or help the troubled family member to seek professional assistance early. Co-workers, colleagues at work, friends and neighbors can also play a very important role in offering assistance and support to those facing life’s challenges.
Thanking the Minister for his comprehensive answers, Mr Dennis Tan then said, “ I understand from my grassroots activities that some of these elderly do not want to be involved in some of these current activities at the SACs and other activity centers.”
“I am just wondering whether the Ministry will consider taking a new approach to some form of Befriender Program or something to interact with these elderly whose partners have passed on and to provide social company and to try to re-integrate them into society.”
Minister Tan replied that isolation in itself isn’t necessarily a problem. But certainly, it isn’t a good thing either because people do need to be socially engaged. It can become a concern at some point where the elderly become less mobile, less able to meet up with other people.
He said, “That is why it is very important for us to realise that the grassroots activities are very important. Ultimately, at some stage your neighbors and the community in which you live in become very critical.”
“That is something that we are looking at through the Befriender Program, which is why I would urge Members to grow these grassroots activities, whether from the neighbors, the grassroots organisations, volunteers and, in fact, working with corporates. That is something I am exploring as well, because companies are looking at CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) efforts.”
“Actually, low-key, simple, weekly, fortnightly befriending visitation goes a very long way and that becomes a bridge to the other activities that we have,” the Minister said.
Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) also threw in her question concerning the matter, she asked, “Would MSF consider working with MOH to look at how our PG Ambassadors can also be that first line of befrienders to visit our elderly, because they are already out there and are already trained?”
Answering her the Minister agreed that the partnership between MSF and MOH is critical because it is hard to draw a line on the matter. He said, “It is very hard to just draw a line that this is a social issue, this is a health issue. I would say the third factor is a community issue. So, (again) the grassroots organisations and structure are a very valuable set-up.”
“The PG office is particularly important because they are actively visiting the Pioneer Generation. What we are trying to do, now that the information is being picked up, whether at the Pioneer General Ambassador level or the grassroots level, is decide how we then pool the information together so that we can then direct efforts at befriending in a lot more targeted and effective manner,” he said.
Nominated Member Kok Heng Leun then asked the MSF Minister, “In my experience working with the elderly, I realise that language plays a very important part in communication. I wonder if all of MSF’s outreach programs would also include other languages. Besides English, which most of the organisations are comfortable with, we are really looking at Mandarin, Malay, Tamil or even various dialects. Would such programs be available? And how do we make sure that these are going out to the elderly?
In his reply Minister Tan said that language plays a very important role, particularly at present when a lot of the elderly do not have the same language competencies. In terms of the outreach for befriending, it is not just in English. Dialects become important, as well as Malay, Tamil and so on.
He said, “We work closely with the getai community to get some of the messages out. We are looking out for volunteers from different backgrounds. I would urge the different communities to step forward to play a part because we do need to leverage on language skills.”
“When that happens and we find that some elderly person is not able to communicate beyond a particular language, we will then source for someone who is able to speak the language to come in.”
“It does not matter what the platform is. Get the message out and then enable individuals to look after themselves as well, and also to encourage those around them to do that. It really takes a collective effort,” he continued, “As we go forward in the next 10 to 15 years, this issue should be less acute. A lot more people should be able to speak the main languages. But it (language) is something that we still need to look out for.”
In another session in the 13th Parliamentary Debate, Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam stressed that it is a criminal offence to attempt suicide and that by criminalising suicide attempts, it makes clear to society that it is not encouraged. The Minister however he did not respond to the question by NCMP Leon Perera, on what evidence is available to the Government to suggest that section 309 of the Penal Code deters attempted suicides.