Managing migrant workers’ mental health a ‘work in progress,’ says Singapore official after self-harm incidents

Living conditions at Westlite foreign workers' dormitory in Singapore April 2020. — TODAY pic
Living conditions at Westlite foreign workers' dormitory in Singapore April 2020. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Aug 7 — The multi-ministry task force addressing the Covid-19 pandemic acknowledged a recent spate of suicides and attempted suicides at the coronavirus-hit foreign worker dormitories, and said that managing the workers’ mental health is a “work in progress.”

Speaking at a task force press conference yesterday, Associate Professor Kenneth Mak, director of medical services at the Ministry of Health (MOH), said that he is aware of incidents of self-harm and attempted self-harm, adding that they are a “cause for concern.”

“I do not pretend that the work is completed (or) that we have a very comprehensive system of support,” he said.

“But the task force is committed to making sure that the mental health needs of the migrant workers are looked into, supported — not just now, but that there is a sustainable framework that would continue in the dormitories even after the outbreak comes under control within the dormitories.”

He was answering a question posed by TODAY about whether the task force is looking into formulating a more comprehensive plan to tackle mental health issues resulting from the foreign workers’ prolonged isolation.

Videos circulating on social media appear to portray various incidents of foreign workers standing precariously on rooftops or ledges of dormitory buildings. One photograph online purportedly showed a worker who slit his throat at a Sungei Kadut dormitory on August 2.

They followed news reports of several unnatural deaths involving migrant workers.

In April, a 46-year-old Indian national died from injuries after being found motionless at a staircase landing at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital. In May, a 27-year-old Bangladeshi worker was found motionless at a factory-converted dormitory in Kranji Crescent.

Then on July 24, a 37-year-old Indian worker was found dead at Sungei Tengah Lodge, the largest purpose-built dormitory here, housing some 25,000 workers in 10 residential blocks on Old Choa Chu Kang Road.

Yesterday, Mak empathised with the workers’ predicament and said that the authorities are “indeed concerned” about how the workers had been accommodated in facilities under “very tight regimes” and were not allowed to enter the community freely.

“Prolonged periods of isolation will obviously have potential adverse effects on any individual, not just a migrant worker, but anyone who has to be cooped up in isolation, where there are limited opportunities for social interaction,” he added.

However, he stressed that mental health had been a concern for the inter-agency task force handling the Covid-19 outbreak at worker dormitories for “quite a while, ever since they started work in the dormitories.”

The inter-agency task force includes a workgroup looking specifically into mental health issues, he said.

The workgroup had worked with the Ministry of Manpower and various private stakeholders or partners across many domains, including counsellors, social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, to look into how they can support the workers’ welfare in different ways.

For instance, they had “taken pains” to help the migrant workers celebrate holidays to make their stay at the dormitories “as meaningful as possible, albeit within the lockdown regime that they are in,” he said.

He added that the team had also provided phone numbers for the workers to call should they need help, and had staff members encourage workers to step forward should they need counselling.

The ministerial task force was also asked if it would consider loosening some of the restrictions on the migrant workers’ movements soon, given that all foreign worker dormitories are set to be cleared of Covid-19 by August 7.

In response, Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the ministerial task force and is also Education Minister, referred to factors to be considered before workers will be allowed to mingle freely in the community on their rest days.

One is that the authorities had often found residual Covid-19 cases after clearing environments where there was a high viral load, he said. He referred to positive Covid-19 cases among construction workers living in the community even after they had been isolated.

Of the community examples, he said: “We had tested them, We had cleared them. But even as we subject them to regular testing, we still see quite a number of workers testing positive, despite them serving 28 days of isolation... Nearly one month.”

He said that the situation would have to be monitored even after clearing dormitories where large clusters had emerged, and even after their residents have resumed work.

“We need to put them through a routine and regular testing for a while more, to be assured that we are indeed clearing and testing every worker, and that they are indeed free from the virus,” he added.

However, at some point, the authorities will certainly look at expanding the provision for the workers to head out, be it to recreational centres or to the community at large on their rest days, Wong said.

“We will plan and stage that step by step to ensure that this is done in a safe manner for the workers themselves, and also for the community at large,” he said. — TODAY

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