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Closing The Social Distance – Darren Mak

Guests from left to right: Rachael, MOS Sun, Dr Ng. We had no shortage of things to talk about

In the past 2 years of endless bad news, never ending changes to social restrictions and regulations, and constant uncertainty, we are all intimately familiar with how it feels like to have your mental health stretched to the limit. Be it from precarious finances at home, immense social isolation and loneliness, or, as our frontline heroes have experienced, literally bearing the weight of the country on their shoulders, we have no shortage of reasons to feel down or even depressed. And it’s not like the pre-covid world was all rainbows and sunshine to begin with.

Even Dictionary.com gets it. Credits: Dictionary.com

Many of us reading this are probably past the age of being a child, and of course with adulthood comes more responsibilities and stress (sob). Yet most of us grew up during non-emergency periods, the closest to covid being maybe the SARS or H1N1 outbreaks. Having to take your temperatures daily in class is quite different from having the entire education system shaken up – no seeing your friends in school, no CCAs, no eating together during recess, no sitting together in class, not even seeing their faces beyond their eyes. How are children going to cope with such childhood conditions? How are they going to grow up in such a world? These are questions we raised to Minister of State Sun Xueling, IMH senior consultant Dr Jared Ng, and Mental Health Collective SG activist Rachael Chew. 

Dr Ng shared something that ought to make all of us feel deeply grateful to all frontliner staff – he and his colleagues have not taken leave for the past 2 years, and yet they push forward and deal with the growing demand for mental health treatment because they know that if they don’t, no one else can. Many times, we think of healthcare primarily in terms of physical health, but look closer and you will know that mental and emotional health is equally important especially during such a prolonged period of stress across the entire nation. MOS Sun, a mother herself, knew intimately that school means much more than grades and academic education for children. School is also a place for holistic growth, and that includes playing and mixing with friends, developing social bonds and skills, and much more – things that online learning simply cannot provide.

No matter how you brand it, it cannot replace the human touch. Credits: Cointelegraph

To MOS Sun, though, it was not simply about whether online teaching could compare with the offline. It was also the fact that such arrangements exacerbated social inequalities, a trend that all societies around the globe saw during this age of ‘social distancing’. Not simply ‘keep a 1m distance, and wear your mask’, but also entrenching all the gaps and fault lines in society: class, race, religion, simply to name a few.

Home based learning means very different things for the child with 4 other siblings sharing a 3-room flat, or who cannot afford stable internet at home, or whose parents are frontliners and cannot afford supervision during school time. That was why MOE had only implemented home based learning during the most dire of periods and set up alternative arrangements for families that needed special assistance. 

Social distancing meant more than physical distance. Credits: Al Jazeera

Part of that distance and isolation also meant that even when children and parents were forced to stay under the same roof, relationships can actually be strained because of all that extra time together. Tensions run high, communication becomes difficult, and this can become a whole other aspect of stress, Dr Ng shared.

Thankfully, young people like Rachael and the Mental Health Collective SG are also busy building bridges across these gaps. Hosting and organizing dialogues and conferences to help facilitate communication, she emphasized that during these trying times love and kindness are more important than ever before. But to do that, we need to unlearn and relearn communication.

A typical social media comments section. Credits: LIGS University

Communication has had something of a revolution even before covid entered the picture. Social media and the internet threw many things about traditional communication and interaction out the window. Not bound by physical space, you can now speak with anyone from around the world. Not bound by verbal and physical cues, you can now easily misread the tone of any message. Not bound by social norms, you can now be as nasty and toxic as you want with anyone.

It is not surprising that to children, born and raised entirely in the internet age, online bullying can have profound impact. And parents whose understanding of it is simply ‘just don’t look at your phone lah’ don’t help either. Parents, most of whom did not have an internet dependant childhood, need to learn what many of these things really mean to their children. That means not imposing their understanding of how the world works on children who are growing in a deeply changed world.

Back in your day, all my problems haven’t existed yet

Truth be told, though, it is not just parents that need to learn how to communicate with children. Communication is always a two-way street and it is not simply about parents and their children. As a society, all of these issues brought about by the upheavals that are social media and covid has revealed many cracks and fault lines that run deep between us. And the solution is also to unlearn and relearn how to communicate with each other, how to be kind again, how to show love again.

In the age of social distance, seeing young activists like Rachael, senior professionals like Dr Ng, and office holders like MOS Sun strive to build bridges for everyone is a heartening sight. But this topic doesn’t end here. There is still plenty to say and plenty to do. But we are on the right track.

Click on the links below to listen to the 3-part podcast on Plan B on Spotify.

Part 1: Mental Health, Students, Teachers and Parents

Part 2: Mental Health, Students, Teachers and Parents

Part 3: Mental Health, Students, Teachers and Parents

Darren Aadam Mak

Written by Darren Aadam Mak

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