NGO finds more distressed Singapore migrants reaching out for mental health help

World | 6 Aug 2020 12:29 pm

Singapore's Ministry of Manpower  said it has not observed a spike in the number of migrant worker suicides compared to previous years, although it is aware of recent incidents involving workers living in dormitories.

“The Ministry of Manpower is aware of the recent spate of suicides and attempted suicides involving migrant workers living at the dormitories,” the ministry said late on Wednesday in response to queries, state network, Channel News Asia reports.

“While we have not observed a spike in the number of migrant worker suicides compared to previous years, we are monitoring the situation and are working closely with our partners and NGOs to enhance our mental health support programmes for the workers.”

More than 300,000 migrant workers living in dormitories had been placed in lockdown in April as part of the government’s strategy to curb the spread of the virus.

In recent weeks, there have been questions about the state of workers’ mental health following reports of unnatural deaths.

On Jul 24, 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.

In May, a 27-year-old migrant worker from Bangladesh was found motionless at a factory converted dormitory in Kranji.

A few weeks before that, a 46-year-old Indian national died from his injuries after being found motionless at a staircase landing at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital.

Videos have also circulated online, with some showing workers standing precariously on rooftops and high ledges.

One of these videos, posted sometime around Jul 22, shows a worker standing on a ledge at PPT Lodge 1B dormitory in Seletar.

The worker, who was staying in a block that was cleared of the virus, had bought a flight ticket home on his own and became agitated when his employer “was not facilitative of his return,'' MOM had said in a Facebook post. 

A dispute occurred as the worker did not discuss with his employer his intention to return home, MOM had said. He was allowed to leave Singapore the next day.

On August 2, another worker had appeared to harm himself at his dormitory in Sungei Kadut. Photos circulating online show a man lying bloodied on a stairwell.

MOM told CNA in an earlier statement that said the man is in stable condition. 

"Checks by MOM found that the worker had no salary arrears, and his food and accommodation were provided for. There was also no indication that he was in distress prior to the incident," the ministry said.

Given the recent incidents, MOM said its Forward Assurance and Support Teams - public officers stationed at the dormitories – have stepped 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 IMH to train and better equip frontline staff with the knowledge and skills to help workers who may require support,” it added.

Uncertainties over their health, jobs and prolonged confinement have affected the mental state of many migrant workers during the virus pandemic, migrant worker advocacy groups said.

According to Justin Paul, non-profit organisation HealthServe’s mental health programme manager, there have been more cases of workers trying to harm themselves or who have expressed a desire to do so because of the stressful situation.

His organisation has seen an increase in the number of workers tapping 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.

“Broadly-speaking they are stressed by various uncertainties," said Dr Chan Lai Gwen, a psychiatrist based at Tan Tock Seng Hospital who volunteers with HealthServe.

Listing their concerns, Dr Chan said: "Whether they will eventually contract COVID-19, whether they may get reinfected after recovery and returning to the dormitory, how long more their quarantine (or) isolation will last, whether they will be able to return home and see their families, whether they will be physically fit to go back to work, whether they still have a job to return to (and) whether their work permits will be renewed."

The situation reached a breaking point right after the “circuit breaker” ended, said Mr Paul. Workers who had been cooped up for two months thought they would finally be able to return to their jobs, but that did not happen.

“When June 2 came and went, a lot of the workers who were holding back and had accumulated stress from April started to break in different ways,” he said, adding that HealthServe’s counselling team started to see an increase in workers expressing self-harm and suicidal thoughts. 

For Chinese national workers, the stress was compounded by news of people in China returning to work. Family members back home began to pressure them for money, he added. 

In cases of attempted suicides, MOM said that based on its records and engagements with the NGOs, such incidents stem from problems workers face back home, such as marital or familial issues, or unforeseen mishaps in their home countries. 

“Due to the current COVID-19 situation, migrant workers may face delays in returning home, thereby causing distress as they are unable to be with their families,” said MOM on Wednesday.

“MOM has been facilitating workers’ return to their home countries. But as there are various factors involved, such as ensuring that these workers have recovered and have taken a swab test as required by some home countries, we seek employers’ and workers’ understanding that it may take some time for workers to be able to return home.”

Rights groups CNA spoke to said another factor affecting migrant workers during this period is their living environment.

Conflicts are inevitable when several workers of different cultural and religious backgrounds stay in a room 24/7, said Samuel Gift Stephen, founder of the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach.

“Imagine if one guy is praying and another is playing music in the background … You know how important their religion is. If they can’t practise it properly, it’s definitely going to affect their mental state,” said Stephen, whose organisation reaches out to South Asian workers living in dormitories.

Then there are recovered workers staying in hotels and cruise ships. With strict measures limiting movement and rooms without windows, many workers felt disoriented, said Cai Yinzhou, co-founder of the COVID-19 Migrant Support Coalition. 

The same goes for workers at community care facilities, added Paul, who cited an example of once seeing a large group of men at the Singapore Expo crowding around a tiny hole where sunlight was seeping through near a makeshift toilet. 

“One worker asked if it was Thursday when it was a Saturday,” said Cai who had visited the workers. “Some of them can’t sleep. Or when they do, (they) have nightmares.”

Comments on social media platforms claiming that the workers are having a good time in the hotels and cruise ships have been particularly demeaning, said Cai.

Lately, more workers have expressed a desire to return home to recuperate, said Dr Chan, who has also seen cases of workers who have thoughts of harming themselves. 

“Everyone involved with migrant workers needs to be aware of the stress they are facing and the real risk of suicide and self-harm when the sense of desperation escalates,” Dr Chan said. “Suicide is preventable.”

Mental health resources are available to workers, MOM said on Wednesday.

“We have made considerable effort to keep workers up to date on COVID-related efforts, through daily messages and also materials in their languages to promote the mental health and well-being of workers. These materials encourage workers to identify symptoms of distress, look out for one another, be a buddy to a friend, and know where to seek help,” said the ministry.

It added that to reduce the effect of isolation, time has been scheduled for workers to leave their rooms and access common areas. The ministry said it has also worked with NGOs to run activities such as exercise sessions.

“Moving forward, when community and dormitory cases have been sustained at low levels for a period of time, we are planning for migrant workers to be able to leave their dormitories for the Recreational Centres in a measured and safe manner,” said MOM.

The NGOs have been also trying to help the workers in other ways.

For instance, Mr Cai’s group has been delivering goods like coffee, tea and shavers to the workers since the circuit breaker. More than a million of these items have been given out, he said. 

The volunteers have also been running engagement programmes to befriend workers and cut their hair.

“Some of their hair are so long, and it’s so uncomfortable for them,” he said. “Just snipping it off gives them quite a bit of respite.” 

Recently, a virtual town hall was held for about 60 workers where a doctor and some migrant workers explained the current situation and policies and took questions.

 Stephen’s group is working with 300 factory-converted dormitories to deliver meals and befriend the workers who pick up the food. 

His organisation is also in the midst of setting up an e-counselling service that matches workers with professional counsellors from their home country.

Employers have also been trying to do their part.

Calsia Lee, director of interior design firm Collective Designs, said she and her colleagues call their workers at least once a week and send them cakes occasionally. There is a WhatsApp chat group for them to reach out anytime.

The company has reassured them that they will still have a job when they are allowed to leave, Lee added.

“The whole company feels sorry for them, and heartbroken, looking at their living conditions. They haven't had the autonomy to simply go for a walk, to stretch or pick up a hobby at home, like the rest of us did,” she said. 

“We empathise with their fears of contracting COVID-19, the uncertainty of their future, their being away from family.”

Xu Xu Ping, managing director of Chian Teck construction firm, echoed the sentiments.  

Since the beginning of the dormitory isolation, Mr Xu and other members of the upper management team began planning activities for workers to boost their morale. 

“We treat ourselves like we are the workers inside,” said Xu. "All these little efforts we try to do is to show them that we care.” 

Such activities include weekly games with small prizes to be won, sending Chinese herbs to “boost their immune systems” and even getting their company engineers to double up as English teachers over virtual classes.

Sometimes he sends his workers encouraging video messages and notes. 

“We really need the morale from the workers,” Xu said.

Short-term anxieties aside, Xu and his team is trying to focus on the possible long-term effects of the workers’ strained mental health.

“Some of them (workers) are calling us to say, ‘please let me go back, I don’t want to stay here anymore’

"If let’s say there’s a chance for the workers to go home, we expect 30 percent to just leave without second thoughts,” he said.

“I think this this period of lockdown is like a wound for the workers,” he added. “It’s not going to heal so fast and if the workers (are) not with Singapore then we are going to have a massive shortage of skilled workers when we restart construction.” 

One worker who is planning to head home to China is Siang Chonglin (not his real name).

A sole breadwinner, the 51-year-old construction worker has not been able to go back to work. For almost three months, he has been at Seletar East Camp, which is among the temporary accommodations arranged for migrant workers who are well.

When CNA spoke to Siang on July 25, the Chinese national’s hopes of returning to his dormitory had been dashed because some workers in the camp tested positive during a round of swabbing on Jul 20. 

“It’ll be a lie to say that I’m not disappointed now,” said Mr Siang, who asked that his name be changed in this report given fears that it would affect his plans to return to China.

Four months since the lockdown was imposed, nearly 90 per cent of these workers have either recovered or been tested to be free from the virus. Even then, they are allowed to leave the dormitories only for work and must return immediately after that.

Although workers struggled through the lockdown, there are many who understand the need for such measures.

“I understand the lockdown. We cannot leave because otherwise we are a security risk to the rest of Singapore,” said Hasan Najmul who has mostly been confined in his room at a Choa Chu Kang dormitory since April.

The only time he felt down was during his quarantine in July, said the 24-year-old Bangladeshi. He was afraid he was infected.

“My bosses called me, tell me 'don’t worry',” said Hasan, who has been in Singapore for six years. “They are very good. Send food, give us our pay.”

Paul said while he has seen workers in distress, others have told him they feel well-supported by employers. Some have written to the authorities to express their gratitude over the care they received. 

“The Government is doing the best to give us what we need. They are spending money on us,” added Fan Bing, a 48-year-old Chinese national who has been in Singapore for 17 years. “I’m satisfied.”

 Bing has been spending his time on movies, social media app Douyin, reading the news and chatting with his bunkmates. 

“We are anxious to start work. But I wouldn’t dare to go back to work if the virus was still out there.

“There’s no choice. We just have to play our part to curb the virus … and be open-minded about the situation,” he said. “I’m hoping it’ll end soon too.” -Photos: CNA













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