“While the collaboration between community and industry partners to integrate people with mental illness into workplaces is doing well, employment opportunities for this group are still very limited, she said” (More Jobs For Those With Mental Illness: Halimah, Mr. Sumita Sreedharan).
The proposal by Minister of State Halimah Yacob for businesses to provide more employment opportunities for those with mental illnesses – “More Jobs For Those With Mental Illness: Halimah” (January 12, 2013) by Mr. Sumita Sreedharan – may be well-intentioned, but it will only yield marginal benefits if the endeavour is not complemented by proactive endeavours to reduce stigmas associated with mental illnesses. The Institute of Mental Health (IMH), by engaging schools and voluntary welfare organisations, should be able to strengthen education outreaches, as well as to accelerate the assimilation of patients through innovative and meaningful public awareness campaigns.
Education the Panacea
Apprehension displayed by employers is understandable, because many do not have a proper comprehension of the profiles and disposition of these individuals. This lack of understanding is – unfortunately – allowed to manifest, and more often than not these unhealthy stigmas morph into unfair stereotypes. With this uncertainty, they are naturally wary. Education therefore features for two purposes: first, it provides representatives with accurate information and knowledge, which could dispel untruths; second, it galvanises more interactions, which helps to reduce the daunting social distance.
At the school level, beyond one-off visits or superficial presentations, educators can encourage discourse within the classroom, challenging students to think about their preconceived perceptions, and to even consider the ramifications of snide comments and jokes involving psychological disorders. Managed delicately, the lesson helps to inform the class, and heightens their sensitivities from young. Thereafter, volunteerism can be a constructive platform for schoolchildren to gain a deeper appreciation of these considerations. Greater human interaction changes mind-sets, and facilitates the integration of persons will mental illnesses within society. When these barriers are lowered, Miss Halimah would realise that businesses would be more forthcoming when invited to reach out to this community.
Education institutions should not be the sole focus. English mental health charity Time To Change has cleverly leveraged upon the accessibility and spread of social media, to highlight the prejudice associated with mental health issues in schools and at the workplace. The campaign, through videos and viral strategies, brings to light inconvenient truths and jibes that have become commonplace, but simultaneously galvanises more to question assumptions, or to take a stand against discrimination. Local movements such as Silver Ribbon (Singapore) have done much, but additional manpower and resources are imperative if they are to launch a concerted, long-term advocacy campaign. These would not be pedantic attempts to increase employment opportunities, but sustainable outreaches to convince the public with messages like: “people with mental illnesses want to be treated just the way they are”, “they can handle roles and responsibilities, if given the trust and confidence”, that “they are no different”.
One should not expect overnight changes, but these sustained undertakings would be constructive steps in the right direction. Without a willingness to bridge the gaps, we will simply be moving in circles.