A man shot his wife and himself dead during Mass last Sunday in my hometown.
The incident was shocking not only because it was gruesome, not only because it occurred at church, but more so because it occurred in a town where nothing ever happens. This was a town of sleepy afternoons and neighborly chats, not of firing guns and killings. But perhaps it was because of this unworried comfort that none of us recognized—and helped—the shooter before he became one.
I want to say first that I am deeply saddened for the loved ones left behind, especially for the children who have lost both their parents in such a horrific way. If this tragedy is inconceivable for someone as far removed as I am, I cannot imagine how it is for the family.
But apart from this, I lament the lack of measures that could have helped mitigate or even prevent the tragedy. There were apparently warning signs of emotional turmoil before the incident, yet nothing was done to ease the storm that was brewing.
In more progressive communities, mental health may be as legitimate a concern as asthma or diabetes. People may be able to talk to a doctor, get a prescription or go through therapy. They may be able to confide in their families and find rational, open-minded support. They may be able to approach teachers, employers or other authority figures, and be met with science-based consideration.
But not in our town. Our town, like many others in the Philippines, is simple. When misfortune strikes, we endure the weight, we lick our wounds, we move on. There is no time or place to talk about chemical imbalances or counseling or mental health hotlines. There is no name for incredible sadness or inexplicable destructive thoughts. You are either good or evil. You are told to just smile; you are told to just pray.
Mental health awareness is meager in rural communities like ours. Depression is exclusive for the rich. Anxiety is unheard of. Behavioral disorders are all lumped together as some form of nuthouse insanity; townsfolk aren’t hesitant to use the word “buang” in its most sordid sense to describe anyone needing medical help for their inner struggles.
In addition, mental health services are scant in such communities. Rural health workers provide some care and management for the handful of vagrants that wander our streets, but beyond that, there is hardly any help available. You wouldn’t know whom to talk to if you are plagued with intense anger or compulsions to self-harm.
The recent incident in our town is far from the first one of its kind in the Philippines. And these tragedies mark only a small fraction of the mental health issues among Filipinos. For instance, about 3.3 million Filipinos grapple with depressive disorders, and 3.1 million with anxiety disorders. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization says that for every 100,000 population in the country, there are only two mental health workers.
The Philippines’ Mental Health Law was signed a few months ago, promising to deliver more mental health providers in barangays as well as antistigma programs in schools and workplaces. We have yet to hear how this law will be implemented, but it should already be a solid foundation for communities to recognize mental health as a real concern.
Further, it should help us change our individual mindset and response to someone’s inner crisis. With science and education as our guide, we can recognize struggling neighbors when they could use some help—not when they are finally and irrevocably driven to destruction.
Our town grieves the loss of the mother, the friend, the neighbor whose life was cut way too short in the nightmarish episode. I am one with them, but I am also crestfallen for the other casualty: not the shooter, but the person he was before he broke. It is regrettable that the path he found was one of devastation, and that it took his heartbreaking act to jog a small town into its senses.
Or perhaps not even; perhaps my hometown will eventually settle again into its sleepy afternoons, refusing to face the mental health issues in its midst. But I would like to hope that this will change.
May the departed and the living find peace. And may those who are still struggling find help in a receptive community that finally realizes the significance of mental health.
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