Going to a good school and achieving good grades are typical goals for Singaporean students, and one that – at least in the eyes of the masses – is supposed to guarantee a certain success later in life. But what many don’t see is the toll it can take on young, formative minds. A thread on Quora titled “What is Singapore’s biggest flaw in your opinion?” garnered a number of replies from students of elite schools that highlight the adverse mental effects from this constant pursuit of perfection.
Fear of failure
Singapore may sit at the top of the world in terms of academic achievements, but what lies beneath this shiny veneer is the struggle it takes to get there.
Quora user Teo Zi En describes the toxic competitiveness that is rampant among students in elite schools, in addition to pressure from the school and parents to do well in exams. In such an environment, “failure is unheard of” and that “B’s are not well received either”. That Singapore is obsessed with grades is not a secret. Joshua Jones describes in the thread how he was rejected by all 4 universities he applied to simply for having a bad score in his A-Levels despite the fact that he thrived in the Air Force and even got a sponsorship from the SAF.
Having perfect scores is not enough at some elite schools. Jonathan Tang, a student at Raffles Institution, stated that “teachers would drill into students’ heads that students must be perfect, mature, and intelligent, but never care when students crash due to overwork.” According to a survey he did, more than half his class only slept about 4 hours a day due to homework and other commitments.
The dark side of success
Ilya Lee, also in an elite school, shared that it’s not uncommon to find Singaporean students struggling with clinical depression, anxiety, self harm, and suicidal thoughts as a result of school stress. She herself was recently admitted to IMH’s child psychiatric ward for suicidal attempts and a history of depressive episodes due to the stress of keeping up with studies and other things.
It didn’t help that her brother killed himself a few years ago, partly due to pressure to perform well. During her time in the ward, she met at least 4 students from top secondary schools and JCs who either attempted suicide or seriously self harmed as a result of school stress. Zi En has also witnessed students threatening suicide, while Jonathan has a friend with a self-harm issue.
These students attend elite schools and are from upper middle class families, and a common thread is that none of their families took their mental health seriously.
The stigma of mental illness
Common remarks like “I never heard of depression when I was younger” or “mental illness is fake, it’s all in the mind” are often thrown around by those in authority, hinting that mental illness is an excuse for being lazy or weak. Students with mental illnesses are most likely stigmatised, which makes some too scared to talk about it.
Despite the fact that Singapore’s healthcare system is stellar, it falls behind when it comes to treating mental health. The Institute of Mental Health’s (IMH) Child Guidance Clinics sees about 2,400 new cases of patients, mostly teens from top schools, seeking treatment every year between 2012 and 2017. However, it’s not easy to seek psychiatric help in Singapore.
The Health Ministry revealed that there are around 4.4 psychiatrists and 8.3 psychologists per 100,000 people here. Across public hospitals, the median waiting time for a new appointment for subsidised consultation is 27-28 days. NMP Anthea Ong highlighted in a recent survey that many respondents indicated “grave dissatisfaction” with the quality of public mental healthcare – mainly due to a lack of empathy from professionals simply because they were overworked.
So what can overstressed students do? The first step is to recognise and voice it – many schools have implemented a peer support system to motivate students to look out for and encourage one another to seek help.