SINGAPORE - A programme providing the mentally ill with greater access to medical care has helped almost 500 patients since it was launched last August.
The two Assessment and Shared Care Teams (Ascat), set up under plans announced by the Health Ministry in March last year, revealed the figures along with proposals to expand their programmes. Ascat aims to give people with problems such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and gambling or alcohol addictions easier access to clinical care.
They tap a network of community-based agencies and train their staff to refer such patients for professional help.
One team led by Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH) works with 16 organisations - such as family service centres, clinics and schools. It has referred 364 people since the programme's inception. A second team - a joint effort between National Healthcare Group Polyclinics (NHGP) and the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) - has served 128 mentally ill people in central Singapore.
More of those living in northern and central parts are set to get help as plans are under way to expand and build on the initiatives.
KTPH, for instance, has set up a self-help website for patients and caregivers. Thrive.org.sg contains information on mental illness, a mental health services directory, self-help materials and advice for families of patients.
The 2011 Singapore Mental Health Survey found that more than one in 10 people will suffer a mental illness in their lifetime but fewer than one in three seek help.
The Thrive website hopes to reach out to this group, said Dr Christopher Cheok, KTPH's head of psychological medicine. "Studies have shown that self-help is better than no help," he said.
Plans are under way to expand the programme at Ang Mo Kio Polyclinic to include more clinic sessions and involve more doctors from July.
Pending patient demand, it may also be extended to other NHGP polyclinics within the central region, said the IMH's deputy chief of community psychiatry, Dr Wei Ker Chiah.
NHGP's deputy director of clinical services and collaborative care, Dr Colin Tan, said such a community-level service "creates less of a barrier in terms of seeking treatment as there could be a stigma associated with going to the mental health hospital".
One patient, "Dean", sought treatment at Ang Mo Kio Polyclinic last October after a business venture failed.
A general practitioner referred him to the Ascat team and he started to see a psychologist, who diagnosed him with anxiety disorder and counselled him monthly.
"I used to cry every day and wanted to be alone all the time. I've since regained my confidence enough to find a job," said Dean, now a freelance personal trainer.
"I was lucky people around me noticed my problem and encouraged me to get help. I advise anyone with mental problems to be receptive to help," he said.
More than $100 million will be spent by the Health Ministry over the next five years on this new community-based approach.
The target is to have six Ascat teams by 2016 to manage up to 9,500 patients.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.