Facing his Secondary 2 form class, Mr Michael Chow shared with them his own series of setbacks, from family problems as a teenager, to having to scale back on sports when he tore a ligament in his right knee.

The 38-year-old Serangoon Secondary School teacher weaved in his personal experiences into a character and citizenship education (CCE) lesson in February, to illustrate the importance of recognising stress and finding different ways to cope.

Mental health education has been included in the refreshed CCE curriculum for secondary schools from this year, along with a greater emphasis on peer support.

These plans were announced as part of last year’s debate on the Education Ministry’s budget.

Thursday’s session, at which the media was invited to observe, was the first in a series on mental health at Serangoon Secondary School.

During the class, the students watched video clips presenting scenarios of teens facing various pressures like schoolwork or negative thoughts, and the different coping strategies.

Using a digital app, Padlet, the students discussed how they can identify stress, when such feelings might become overwhelming and turn into distress, as well as how they can seek help in such situations.

Mr Chow, a specialised CCE teacher, said: “I notice the things that they write and issues they bring up. These lessons bring about greater awareness of real struggles they have.

“When students respond to scenarios, we can roughly deduce that they’re facing certain issues at home or in school, or with classmates.”

The school also started peer support training last year. These sessions cover calming-down techniques like breathing exercises and ways to detect changes in emotions.

It now has 26 dedicated peer support leaders across the school – one per class – and aims to increase this to two per class next year. Student and co-curricular activity leaders are also sent for training in peer support.

Ms Moritza Lim, the school’s subject head for student well-being, said: “We equip them with strategies to know how to spot friends in distress, how to listen actively to them and channel any needs to teachers.

“We tell them ‘you’re the first line of support for your friends, but you’re not alone’.”

She added: “When students raise any cases to us, it helps us to intervene early. So far the challenges have been about family issues, studies, friendships, bullying and social exclusion.”

Minister of State Sun Xueling speaking to students at Serangoon Secondary School on the topic of mental health. Credit: Chong Jun Liang/ST

Secondary 2 student Kate Lau, 14, who is a peer support leader, said: “I usually listen to my peers and let them talk about their issues. A lot of people may think that to help someone, you must save them, or be the hero. But usually they just need someone to listen to them, to care about them.”

She looks out for changes in behaviour, like getting angry over small things, losing concentration or not being as enthusiastic as before.

“There was once my friend did not do so well in school… she approached me and she trusted me because I was her friend. So I listened to her and I tried to help her,” she said.

“I told her it’s okay because it’s just one test – it won’t determine the rest of her life and she was going to be fine and she could talk to me if she needed to.”

Mr Michael Francis Chow conducting a Character and Citizenship Education lesson on mental health at Serangoon Secondary School. Credit: Chong Jun Liang/ST

Minister of State for Education Sun Xueling, who sat in on Thursday’s lesson, said the increased focus on mental health in schools is timely, given the challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic may have brought about for students.

“Some of them may feel isolated, or may be facing problems in the family at home,” she said, noting that young people today may also have their own pressures.

“Nowadays more young people are using social media, and they may feel that they have to present a certain front to keep up with their friends on social media, and that can bring about stress,” she said.

“Through our CCE classes, students learn that it’s actually okay to not feel okay and that they can talk to their friends, teachers, counsellors,” said Ms Sun.

“I appreciate the fact that our specially trained CCE teachers also open up about themselves as adults to their students and (this) encourages sharing of experiences.”

Said Mr Chow: “Don’t think that your teachers are perfect; we have our own experiences too but we have learnt to deal with setbacks.

“When I was younger, I realised I needed to seek help – I had to talk it out with my closer friends.”

Text: Amelia Teng/The Straits Times