Help is closer to home
I hope my friends and neighbors and relatives recognize a few things about the freshly-signed Philippine Mental Health Act. First, that this law matters to us more profoundly than we realize, because it addresses real, existing needs in our community that we typically overlook.
Here’s a picture of my hometown, a small rural municipality off the northern coast of Mindanao: People like to laugh. We live modestly, relying on simple, practical solutions for everything from breakfast food to the death of a loved one. In the afternoons, you would find neighbors gabbing leisurely by their front yards, joking away their personal problems. You wouldn’t hear us discussing emotions or hormones or chemical imbalances, but you would find us jesting about town drunks or gossiping about how someone’s marital issues supposedly led to suicide.
It’s especially difficult to have a mental health condition in a community like this. It’s a community where you’re expected to be as cheerful and resilient as everyone else. If you feel gloomy or hopeless, even your own family would expect you to smile it away. If you feel overwhelmed by anxieties, compulsions or destructive thoughts, you’d be hard-pressed to find healthy avenues to discuss them.
If you do seek real help, you wouldn’t know where to start, as mental health professionals are unheard of here. And people would tell you that they “don’t believe” in mental health problems, or that these problems are only for wealthy people who are dependent on—and can afford—therapists. “Just pray,” you’re told.
I’m not the only one who has had to struggle in this setting. Over the years, many others have disclosed their own experiences of being undermined or stigmatized when trying to open up about mental health. There are experiences of having to hide their self-harming from their own parents, or dialing a suicide hotline and not getting through. There are experiences of neglecting their own inner turmoil because they feel they are too old or too poor to seek help.
Some 3.3 million Filipinos suffer from depressive disorders, and 3.1 million from anxiety disorders. There are more that grapple with other mental health conditions. Yet we still lack a receptive environment to discuss these. Traditional mindsets still perpetuate myths about mental health, making it difficult to have a conversation toward real solutions.
Further, many communities, especially rural ones, lack access to affordable, professional mental health care. The World Health Organization found that for every 100,000 Filipinos, there are only two mental health workers. It’s a terribly discouraging situation.
The Philippine Mental Health Act aims to address these gaps. The Department of Health is currently drafting the implementing rules and regulations of this law, but even at this point, it’s already a significant mark of progress that more Filipinos should note.
One of the mandates of the law is for schools and workplaces to implement anti-stigma and antidiscrimination programs. Hopefully, these programs will be science-based and culturally sensitive, so they can effectively correct mental health misconceptions that are ingrained in our culture. These would also promote an open, healthy environment for discussing mental health.
The other mandate of the law is to provide the public with mental health services in regional and tertiary-level hospitals, and mental health service providers such as psychiatrists and barangay health workers. If done right, these provisions would make mental health care much more accessible in underserved rural communities.
Imagine barangays where depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders are regarded with the same level of concern and medical care as any other health problem. These would be communities where individuals would not have to struggle alone in their affliction, where families could better help their suffering loved ones, and where anyone who contemplates self-harm or suicide could find a lifeline.
This is why our mental health law matters, even—and especially—in small towns across the country. It brings help closer to home. And that means great hope for those who are suffering, and those who have a loved one who does. I hope my friends and neighbors and relatives recognize this. I hope yours do, too.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.