Asha Prihar, Contributing Photographer
Across the world from and 12 hours ahead of New Haven, students at Yale-NUS have been advocating around mental health for years.
Those conversations have been especially prevalent following a student’s death in 2016. According to an article from The Octant, the Yale-NUS student newspaper, the Counselling Centre — the college’s main hub of mental health support — only employed one part-time counselor at the time.
“I remember going to a counseling session with my girlfriend then, and the counselor had absolutely no clue what we were trying to … talk about and the kind of anxieties we were facing,” a 2017 Yale-NUS graduate who wished to remain anonymous to protect his future employment prospects, told the News.
The Counselling Centre now employs two full-time and three part-time therapists. It offers individual, couples or group counseling for students, and there is a one- to two-week wait time for an appointment in the first half of the semester, but in case of an emergency, students can meet with a therapist within a day. Around 250 students make up each class at Yale-NUS, for a total of roughly 1,000 students.
Despite this increase in available counselors, demand is still high from students while there is a shortage of counseling sessions available according to Student Director of Wellness Wang Ziying Yale-NUS ’23. However, Wang mentioned that hiring more counselors is not the sole solution to this issue.
“We recognize that the high level of mental stress students experience is a result of the combined effect of high academic rigor, peer pressure, lack of awareness or skills for self-care, and generally, the lack of balance between one’s academic, extracurricular, social, and private life,” Wang wrote in an email to the News. “Therefore, much more needs to be done beyond increasing the number of available counsellors/counselling sessions in the Counselling [Centre].”
Overall, Wang believes that Yale-NUS prioritizes mental health, evident by the administration’s efforts to support students and the community’s commitment to creating a safe environment to discuss, and in turn destigmatize, struggles with mental health.
In an email to the News, Head of Counselling at Yale-NUS Goh Zhengqin listed resources available to students on behalf of the college beyond the Counselling Centre. These included support from residential staff such as assistant deans and residential life officers, Survivor Support Advisors for victims of sexual assault and the availability of psychiatric services at the University Health Centre at the National University of Singapore.
“As a small residential college, we have different layers of support built into our community and provide various mental health resources,” Goh wrote. “The Counselling and Wellness team is also heavily involved in running the Wellness pillar of the Yale-NUS Residential Curriculum… In the last two years, the Counselling and Wellness team has been conducting workshops aimed at creating a ‘Culture of Care’ on the Yale-NUS College campus which enables students to engage in discussion and self-reflection on topics contributing to student well-being.”
Wang also pointed to two student initiatives that aim to support students struggling with their mental health: the wellness branch of the student government — which works with the college to provide mental health resources and advocate for students’ needs — and Peer Support, or P.S., We Care — a student organization that provides peer counseling.
Inspired by Yale’s Walden Peer Counseling, P.S. We Care allows students to meet with peer counselors — who are trained in techniques such as solution-focused brief therapy and Mental Health First Aid — six nights a week, from 9 p.m. to 12 a.m. on a walk-in basis. This allows for accessibility for students who may not be able to get an appointment with the Counselling Centre, P.S. We Care Co-lead Joseph Chin Yale-NUS ’21 wrote in an email to the News.
“I think that we hold an important and unique space on campus because when counsellees
come into a session, they aren’t seeing a certified therapist, but speaking to a fellow peer within the same community,” Chin wrote. “Given that we’re students ourselves, we have greater ability to resonate with our counsellees about academic, relational, and career-related issues.”
One factor of mental health struggles at Yale-NUS stems from the culture of Singapore itself, students say. The 2017 Yale-NUS graduate said that during his years at Yale-NUS, he felt that speaking on problems about mental health was not very normalized and these struggles were almost seen as “not real issues.”
He compared this to his experience on exchange at Yale in the U.S., where he feels people talk about mental health struggles more openly.
“Singapore is still relatively conservative when it comes to mental health compared to the West. However, there has been a growing awareness and destigmatization,” Goh wrote. “Yale-NUS itself has a very open culture in terms of talking about and addressing mental health concerns relative to the rest of Singapore.”
Both the 2017 graduate and Francesca Maviglia Yale-NUS ’20 SPH ’20, who was a peer counselor with P.S. We Care during her time at Yale-NUS, also pointed to the extreme rigor of the school and the competitive nature amongst students as another key contributor to student mental health struggles at the college.
Maviglia explained that she imagines struggles faced by Yale-NUS students — such as trouble navigating mental health resources, difficulty obtaining a dean’s note and competition amongst peers — are not unique to Yale-NUS, but are issues present at colleges all over the world.
“I mean some professors just assign a lot of work. The college career office has certain expectations or certain messaging around the way that students should be, you know, doing internships or doing work,” Maviglia said. “This is probably very similar to Yale College I would imagine. The culture of … competitiveness, the pressure to succeed, the pressure to have certain achievements — I think that that’s actually … what had the biggest toll on mental health for students.”
Maviglia used the word “superficial” to describe the conversations on solutions to student mental health struggles during her time on campus, adding that even her peers would complain about the poor mental health of the students but shame each other for “doing things for fun, rather than work-related things.”
Chin confirmed that even now, culture surrounding mental health in Singapore and the high-achieving nature of Yale-NUS students “feed off of each other,” to exacerbate mental health struggles at the college.
He added that as peer counselors, members of P.S. We Care, along with other wellness groups on campus, are able to validate their peers’ feelings of inadequacy and work together towards a resolution.
“Prevention is equally important as cure,” Chin wrote. “This involves not only inculcating a more resilient mental-health climate and raising awareness to promote a healthier work culture where students will actively prioritize self-care to prevent mental breakdowns, which is what we are doing now.”
P.S. We Care was founded in 2013, two years after the establishment of the college.