MOH: Tackling mental health and anxiety of migrant workers is an on-going process

MOH: Tackling mental health and anxiety of migrant workers is an on-going process

Warning: Mentions suicide and self-harm

With a slew of suicide attempts and self-harm by migrant workers reported in close succession in recent months, the multi-ministry task force (MTF) plans to continue support efforts in their mental health via counselling and making their stint in lockdown facilities more meaningful. 

The burden of being “cooped up in isolation” with “very limited opportunities for social interactions” was acknowledged by the Ministry of Health’s director of medical services Kenneth Mak during the MTF news conference on Thursday (6 Aug). 

It was also attended by the two co-chairs of the MTF, Minister for Health Gan Kim Yong and Minister for Education Lawrence Wong. 

Mr Gan is also an elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Chua Chu Kang Group Representation Constituency (GRC) in the General Election 2020 held on 10 July. 

Mr Wong was appointed Minister for Education and Second Minister for Finance during the announcement of the Cabinet on Saturday (25 Jul). He is also MP for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC. 

Increasing anxiety among migrant workers in badly affected and high-risk dormitories

When asked by a member of the media on the MTF’s assessment of the anxiety of workers, especially for those in more badly affected dorms, Mr Mak said: “This is a concern for us. Migrant workers have been accommodated in facilities under very tight regimes and they haven’t been able to come out of the dormitories freely.” 

He recognised that the prolonged period of isolation will “obviously have potential adverse effects on any individual, not just the migrant workers”.

Inter-agency task force to enhance welfare support for workers 

In response to how migrant workers’ mental health is being looked after then, he said the inter-agency task force working with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) – private stakeholders and partners – have been looking at how to support the welfare of these migrant workers in the right and different ways. 

“They have taken pains to help migrant workers make their stay within the lockdown dormitories as meaningful as possible, albeit within the lockdown regime,” Mr Mak commented. 

He added that the task force has also offered help through a variety of ways – such as opportunities for them to call in the help hotlines and staff who come down to encourage workers and provide counselling

Suicide attempts and self-harm incidents have become a “cause of concern” for MTF

“(Therefore) is mental health increasingly an area that the MTF is looking into and creating a more comprehensive platform to address these issues?” came the third part of the question posed. 

Mr Mak commented that “mental health has been a concern for that particular task force for a while, ever since they started work in the dormitories”. 

He specifically mentioned the recent spate of “incidents of self-harm and attempted suicides of some of the individuals in the dormitories”. 

“This is a cause of concern and the task force continues to look at how to reach out to support the migrant workers who have needs that have to be addressed in this regard,” Mr Mak said. 

He concurred that this is a work in progress and the MTF “does not pretend that the work is completed”. 

“We have a very comprehensive system of support, but the taskforce is committed (to) making the mental health needs of the migrant workers looked into and supported.

“(It won’t be) just now but there is a framework that will continue in the dormitories even after the outbreak comes under control in the dormitories,” Mr Mak said. 

Most foreign workers to return to work by end August

At the conference, Mr Wong announced that most foreign workers will be able to return to work by the end of this month. 

These workers will be those who have been cleared or recovered from COVID-19. 

With this move in place, construction activity will be able to resume by the end of the month as well.

Mr Wong implored contractors however to enforce the required safe management measures now before the resumption of work. 

Workers will still be tested every two weeks after they return to work, said Mr Wong, warning that COVID-19 cases among the community could appear once more. 

“Just because we have COVID-cleared dormitories doesn’t mean that we should assume these are permanently COVID-safe dormitories because we all know that the virus can flare up again.”

Watch the answer by Mr Mak:

What the full video of the news conference:

Seven unnatural deaths of migrant workers reported since lockdown in April 

Since April when more than 300,000 migrant workers living in dormitories were under lockdown as part of the Government’s strategy to curb the spread of COVID-19, seven suspected suicides or attempted suicides have been reported. 

  • Monday, 3 August – Indian national found dead at Jurong West dormitory

The most recent one was reportedly on Monday (3 Aug) where a 36-year-old Indian national was found dead in the factory-converted dormitory in Fan Yoong Road in Jurong West.

The police said they received a call at 1.45am and the man was pronounced dead by a paramedic. 

Investigations into the death are ongoing.

A spokesman for MOM said it was aware of the incident and expressed its condolences to the man’s family.

“We have informed his family members and employer as well as the embassy,” the spokesman told The New Paper.

He added that MOM is also “working with the worker’s employer and the Migrant Workers’ Centre to provide assistance to his family”. 

Factory-converted dorms are industrial developments or warehouses that have been partially converted to living quarters for workers who typically work on-site.

  • Sunday, 2 August – Migrant worker allegedly slit throat in attempted suicide

One day before that on Sunday (2 Aug), a migrant worker was found lying at the bottom of a staircase next to a puddle of blood at a dormitory at Sungei Kadut.

He allegedly slit his throat in a suicide attempt. 

The police apprehended the man under the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act which provides for the admission, detention, care, and treatment of mentally disordered persons in designated psychiatric institutions.

He is now in a safe and stable condition. 

Further inquiries by MOM revealed that he did not have unpaid salary or any prior signs that he was under duress before his attempted suicide. 

  • Friday, 24 July – Indian worker found dead at Old Choa Chu Kang Road

On 24 July, a 37-year-old Indian worker was found dead at 512 Old Choa Chu Kang Road. According to the police, this is a case of an “unnatural death” and investigations are ongoing.

  • Friday, 24 July – Chinese migrant worker attempted suicide by standing on a ledge at dormitory 

On the same day, a viral video showed a Chinese migrant worker attempting suicide at an undisclosed dormitory. 

When asked why he was contemplating suicide, the man noted that he was not allowed to return home despite purchasing the flight ticket using his own money. He questioned why he was unable to leave for home.

  • Wednesday, 22 July – Chinese migrant worker attempted suicide by standing on a ledge at a Punggol dormitory

Another video went viral on 22 July as it was circulating on social media, showing a migrant worker at a dormitory in Singapore attempting suicide. It was alleged that this occurred at S11 Dormitory @ Punggol.

According to Vaster News, the Chinese migrant worker was forced to pay a S$2,000 return ticket to China after encountering issues with his employer.

However, it was reported that the migrant worker could not afford the flight ticket, thus he stood on the railing, being on the verge to commit suicide.

  • Tuesday, 19 May – Bangladeshi foreign worker found dead at Kranji Crescent

A Bangladeshi foreign worker, 27, was found motionless at 31 Kranji Crescent and was pronounced dead at the scene by paramedics.

The police were alerted to this unnatural death at 6.40pm. It is unknown if he had been confined to his dormitory at the time of his death.

  • Thursday, 23 April – Indian national, a COVID-19 patient, was found motionless at dormitory and pronounced dead at hospital 

An Indian national, 46, was found motionless at a staircase in a factory-converted dormitory, and succumbed to his injuries at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital that morning.  He had contracted the COVID-19 virus.

MOM “has not observed a spike in the number of migrant worker suicides compared to previous year” 

In response to media queries on Wednesday (5 Aug), MOM affirmed that it has not observed a spike in the number of migrant worker suicides compared to previous years. 

“The Ministry of Manpower is aware of the recent spate of suicides and attempted suicides involving migrant workers living at the dormitories.”

The ministry added that they are “monitoring the situation and are working closely with their partners and non-government organisations to enhance mental health support programmes for the workers”. 

One such programme is the Forward Assurance and Support Teams – public officers stationed at the dormitories – who will step up efforts to “proactively look out for residents whom they assess may benefit from speaking to a mental health counsellor”.

“We have also worked with the Institute of Mental Health to train and better equip frontline staff with the knowledge and skills to help workers who may require support,” the ministry added.

Non-profit organisation found increasing number of self-harm cases and intentions in doing so

According to Mr Justin Paul, non-profit organisation HealthServe’s mental health programme manager, there have been more cases of self-harming among migrant workers or those who have expressed an intention of doing so because of the bleak situation.

His organisation has seen an increase in the number of workers engaging in their mental health services. 

In April, 71 workers reached out to them through their virtual advisory sessions, counselling services and online group therapy sessions. 

It saw 244 workers in June and 207 in July. In total, HealthServe received queries from about 750 workers so far. 

Netizens question if enough has been done and quality of answers given; give suggestions on possible solutions 

Debate on whether sufficient support has been provided to migrant workers and at dormitories

Many comments on Facebook and Youtube challenged the MTF on whether enough has been done to curb the situation at dormitories, the provision of help to migrant workers, and the reasons why this outbreak at the dormitories was not anticipated earlier. 

In the same vein, suggestions and observations of what can be done better to tackle the spread of the pandemic and mental health issues were posted. 

Frustration with quality of answers that failed to address core issues

A substantial bulk of netizens took issue with the way the ministers tackled the questions fielded, and that at the end of the day, concrete solutions were not provided. 

People seeking help may call these helplines: 

Migrant Workers’ Centre: 6536-2692

HealthServe: +65-3138-4443

Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444

Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019

Institute of Mental Health’s Mobile Crisis Service: 6389-2222

Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800

Silver Ribbon: 6386-1928

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