Caring in a time of crisis

Ms Vivienne Ng, Chief Psychologist, Ministry of Social and Family Development

Since its launch on 10 April 2020, the National CARE Hotline has managed 20,900 calls from the community. Behind the setting up and operations of the hotline is a huge amount of coordination required across various parties including Ms Vivienne Ng.

The Chief Psychologist of MSF and her team had only about a week to rally volunteers because of the urgency to provide emotional and psychological support to those facing difficulties with the stressors brought about by COVID-19. They quickly reached out to the multi-agency National CARE Management System (NCMS), led by the Ministry of Health, to tap on CARE officers who are trained to provide emotional support during crises.

As of June 2020, over 770 Duty CARE officers from government agencies, community partners and in private practice, have stepped forward to man the Hotline. “We are encouraged by the sheer number of volunteers who offered their help, with everyone understanding the urgency of the Hotline and wanting to help fellow Singaporeans in need,” says Vivienne.

Professional bodies like the Singapore Psychological Society (SPS), the Singapore Association for Counselling (SAC) and the Singapore Association of Social Workers (SASW) also reached out to their members to volunteer for the Hotline.

On the rallying of volunteers, Vivienne said, “It was truly a public-private-people partnership that went beyond our wildest hopes.”

Besides being the CARE coordinator at MSF, Vivienne oversees National CARE Hotline’s volunteer recruitment, briefing and rostering, management of supervisors, call centre operations, data analysis and research. When she needed help with understanding what goes into setting up a hotline and managing telephony records, she reached out to experienced colleagues handling MSF’s other Hotline operations such as ComCare.

She and her team also relied on community partners for technical support. The social enterprise Agape Connecting People provided a call system and customer service officers to prioritise calls for the Hotline.

The major concerns of callers to the National CARE Hotline relate to mental health, emotional support, family issues and employment. Duty CARE Officers are the first line of assistance, providing a listening ear to callers. If callers require longer-term specialised support, the officers link them to community partners, such as the Institute of Mental Health, Samaritans of Singapore, Temasek Foundation’s My Mental Health, Agency for Integrated Care, Community Psychology Hub’s Online Counselling Platform and Viriya Community Services.

Coordinating the various aspects of the Hotline to ensure smooth operations can be intense and Vivienne says that she worked late into the night during the first few weeks following the launch of the Hotline. Nevertheless, she enjoys the fast pace and quick problem-solving aspects of crisis and disaster-related work. Most of all, she is motivated by the impact made by National CARE Hotline.

“I’m always so encouraged when I read shift reports and hear about the different people the Duty CARE officers have helped, the tragedies we averted and lives touched,” she says. “Some even call back to compliment the service and thank our Duty CARE officers.”

Working on National CARE Hotline has reminded Vivienne of her post-graduate days, when she studied for a Master’s degree in Psychology at the University of Western Australia and volunteered weekly at the Samaritans’ suicide helpline.

She handled calls in the middle of the night and “de-escalated strong emotions of people in severe crisis, including people holding guns to their heads”. Three decades later, she says she is again reflecting on the “hidden lives of people”, such as those who suffer from mental health problems that have been exacerbated with COVID-19 and others who have experienced a change of fortunes because of COVID-19.

“While we can’t solve all their problems, people need a listening ear, an empathetic response – they need to feel cared for and less alone. We can also point them in the right direction to get more help.”

In this regard, you need not be a clinical professional or part of the National CARE Hotline to help, says Vivienne. “If we all reach out to our neighbours, friends and relatives around us, ask them how they are doing and really listen, there will be less isolation, more community spirit and building of relationships. 

“In this way, we can all help one another.”      

TIP BOX
Here are some tips from Vivienne on dealing with fears of COVID-19 and adapting to life after the Circuit Breaker:

– Take time to ease yourself back into a work and family routine, expecting some disorganisation and adjustment.
– While fears about COVID-19 still abound, remind yourself that community spread is currently very low and the probability of contracting the virus is very low, too, as long as necessary safety precautions are taken.
– Do not be consumed with worries about the illness, but re-engage with life, family, friends and the community while exercising care.
– Exercise regularly, eat healthily, maintain a regular sleep cycle, engage in hobbies and learn new things.
– Spend time talking and interacting with family and friends, either in person where possible or via video conferencing platforms.

If you need or know of someone who needs help, please contact the National CARE Hotline at 1800-202-6868.

If you are a mental health professional and would like to volunteer for the hotline, email the National CARE Hotline at nationalcarehotline@msf.gov.sg