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Simple doesn’t cut it

Radio and television broadcaster Erwin Tulfo was named as the next secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), a controversial choice given his previous public tirade against incumbent DSWD Secretary Rolando Bautista for refusing to be interviewed by him. Tulfo has announced his priority plans for DSWD, including updating the list of beneficiaries, digitalizing the distribution of cash grants, transforming the monthly conditional cash assistance payments of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) into lump sum payments, and creating rehabilitation centers for juvenile youth.

His ideas and plans highlight the pitfalls of appointing someone who has no social work or community development experience. On its face, his reasoning behind his suggestions seems simple and well-meaning. What it lacks, however, is an understanding of the social and structural systems that affect people’s welfare. Even something as seemingly simple as updating the list of beneficiaries — this is more political than one would think. We have a longstanding problem of beneficiary lists being skewed toward favored families and voters who have aligned with parties in power. I hope that Tulfo recognizes the need to create a corruption-proof system of beneficiary registration.

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Digitalization of cash grant distribution also has a stumbling block that he needs to overcome. A significant number of communities and areas still do not have access to digital transactions (ATMs, stores and vendors who take cashless transactions). I hope he understands that limiting access to one medium can further alienate poorer and more isolated communities, the opposite of what he wants to achieve.

Suggesting a yearly lump sum payment, supposedly so that beneficiaries can invest it into their business, belie a lack of understanding what 4Ps is about. The monthly cash assistance is to address immediate needs like food. These are families who will go hungry without such assistance. They literally cannot afford to set aside their monthly cash assistance. Giving them a yearly lump sum runs the risk of families running out of money in the latter half of the year, if not sooner. The goal of helping them build a business should be done in a separate or integrated program.

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Lastly, setting up youth rehabilitation centers is not the most effective way to address issues of children in conflict with the law. It is better to invest time and effort into community diversion programs, as studies have shown that less contact with the justice system makes children less likely to commit crimes again. Confinement, instead of probation, increases the risk of recidivism.

The DSWD plays a big role in Filipino mental health. Poverty is a big risk factor for poor mental health in this country. If we alleviate poverty, we alleviate poor mental health. Lack of security when it comes to food, housing, and income may lead to clinical anxiety and depression. Even in more genetically based psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, environmental stresses can spell the difference between manifesting the disorder or keeping it latent. If we are serious about reducing substance abuse, addressing poverty concerns can go a longer way than focusing on punitive measures. In one of the studies we conducted (yet to be published), we saw that the use of illegal substances among the poor is driven by their external conditions: the need to have enough energy and stay awake to work multiple physically exhausting jobs, as well as the lack of viable income alternatives that tempts them toward the “fast money” offered by the illegal drug trade.

When it comes to issues of mental health, I pay extra attention to the appointments in the Department of Health (DOH), Department of Education (DepEd), and DSWD. These agencies work collaboratively in multiple mental health issues, such as disaster mental health, child mental health, and social and environmental factors affecting mental health. My fervent wish is that these three agencies prioritize such issues. Two out of the three agencies already have an identified successor: incoming Vice President Sara Duterte for DepEd and Erwin Tulfo for DSWD. None of them have mentioned mental health in their list of priorities. Based on the current rumored candidates for DOH, I am keeping my expectations low that mental health will be given ample resources.

For better or for worse, Cabinet positions seem to not require that they have professional expertise in the domain of their respective departments. As such, I, at least, hope that these appointees appreciate the enormity of their responsibility and take it upon themselves to understand the situation fully. I hope they have the humility to learn from the wisdom of others who have experience in the field, and apply systems solutions rather than simplistic Band-Aids.

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TAGS: Anna Cristina Tuazon, Cabinet appointnents, Erwin Tulfo, Safe Space, Sara Duterte-Carpio, Simplicity
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