Public education key to setting up care centres for those with mental illness

Residents of many districts oppose such facilities, in the mistaken belief that patients pose a threat to public safety

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 July, 2016, 12:42am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 July, 2016, 12:42am

It is difficult for any society to admit to having a strong not-in-my-backyard mentality. But the truth is that, from the construction of burial places and refuse collection points to highways and public housing blocks, there exists a long list of unwelcome facilities in our neighbourhoods. Adding to the problem is the government’s inconsistent approach in consulting local residents on these projects. A case in point is service centres for people with mental illness.

The Equal Opportunities Commission found that about 40 per cent of the Integrated Community Mental Health Wellness Centres had yet to secure a permanent site. This came despite a government pledge in 2009 to provide one-stop service for mental patients and their caregivers in all 18 districts.

Resistance in the neighbourhoods is to blame. Residents are worried that the centres will attract mental patients to their district. There is also the misconception that the patients are prone to violence and a threat to public safety, according to service providers interviewed in the commission’s study.

Counselling in a fast food restaurant? Fear of the mentally ill makes residents oppose building of permanent counselling centres

The watchdog also noted that the public consultation process for such projects varies across the districts. The outcome often hinged on the position taken by community leaders. While some district officials were firm in selling the projects, others easily gave up upon facing opposition. The inconsistency means some proposals may fall through before residents understand the details. The lack of permanent sites has prevented the centres from providing more comprehensive services, which may dampen incentives for people to seek help. Social workers sometimes need to counsel patients in fast food restaurants.

The not-in-my-backyard mindset amounts to discrimination and should not be accepted. Officially, more than 40,000 people are suffering mental and behavioural disorders. The population is even larger when taking into account those who dare not seek help because of social stigma. The study underlines the need for more public education. Officials should also adopt a more proactive approach towards building service centres for patients with mental illness.