Recognising and addressing mental health issues

HOME volunteer and domestic worker Cute writes about mental health, and how for migrants traveling to Singapore to do domestic work this important part of our well-being must not be neglected. 

As the saying goes: “health is wealth“. But all too often, mental health is left unattended.

People tend to have the perception that our physical well-being is of primary concern; thus, when we get sick – whether with a fever of the ‘flu, or from physical aches from overly strenuous work – we see a doctor, take some medicine, and assume we’re better again. For more serious illnesses – cancer, for example – sufferers will generally be inundated with emotional and financial, as well as medical, support.

This attitude has also, until recently, been the case while I have been volunteering at HOME, especially as a leader of the HOME ROSES group, addressing women’s health issues (in particular HIV/AIDS); focusing on mental health issues has not been our priority.

However this is changing, and the affect of mental health issues on domestic workers and migrants is being recognised by HOME as a serious issue in desperate need of attention.

Domestic workers come from different parts of the world, bringing with them different beliefs and religions, and leaving behind diverse cultures and mores. Such changes – often sudden – to their lives can have drastic effects on them, and in my time as a HOME volunteer I have come to realise that all migrants have a story to tell. Some are positive, but alas far too many are sad, desperate tales of loneliness, isolation and mistreatment.

Singapore is a key receiving country of female foreign domestic workers. But they encounter strict legal and institutionalized constraints and are vulnerable to oppressive and exploitative conditions, which pose serious threats to their mental well-being.

One particularly upsetting story is of a domestic worker who was never given a day off, was scolded for every mistake – no matter how small- and received constant criticism. She worked long hours, with little food, and a scant few hours’ sleep every night. To her, the verbal abuse was worse than any physical abuse could have been. Reaching breaking point, and with no one to confide in, and seeing no way out, she one day leapt to her only escape – death – from the 6th story window of her employer’s home.

It’s not enough to feel sorry for these women, or to ignore their plight. Now HOME has plans to help them – and other migrants facing emotional and mental stress because of their situations.

Our first step is to do a survey almost 700 domestic workers, to gather details about their working and living conditions, and how they affect their psychological well-being. With this information, HOME hopes to gain a better understanding about the mental health problems of domestic workers, and from there formulate recommendations for the government, employers, employment agencies and also for the worker herself to protect and improve their mental well-being, and highlight the importance of a domestic worker’s well-being for all involved parties. HOME will release the results of this study, which is the first of its kind, in November.

We plan to work with M.O.M. to find appropriate solutions, so that mental health issues arising from poor working conditions can be tackled. To this end we hope to prevent any more needless loss of life, and create better working environments.

At HOME we understand that mental health issues can affect the employer as well as the employee; to quote my late father: “it takes both hands to clap”. As such, I propose that both parties in a domestic employment relationship should undertake a mandatory mental health test, to fully and properly tackle this growing problem.

It takes time and effort to study and find solutions to any issue which runs deep and which may be masked by cultural and social differences. In time, however, I hope that mental health issues will one day be given as much attention and care as physical health issues.

Yours faithfully,


(By Saturnina De Los Santos Rotelo -also known as ” CUTE”)


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