Mentally disabled, but not crazy
“If you will not give me a valid reason why you skipped the exam, I will give you a failing grade,” said Marie’s law professor.
Marie (not her real name), a college student in one of the prestigious schools in the country, said: “Sir, I have clinical depression and anxiety disorder. I was not able to study. I have prescriptions, medical receipts and a medical certificate to prove it.”
The professor then replied, “You mean to tell me you can skip an exam anytime you want?” With the professor’s response, it can be concluded that he did not understand what depression and anxiety disorder mean. Even with the pertinent documents that Marie was willing to show to prove her mental illness, the professor brushed her excuse aside.
While teachers can invoke what they call “academic freedom,” that even illnesses cannot be excused, what do we make of the provision found in the Philippine Constitution that states, “The State shall protect and promote the right to health of the people and instill health consciousness among them”? Didn’t Marie’s teacher violate our basic law, which is the supreme law of the land?
If Marie had a type of illness other than mental illness, would she have been given consideration by her professor? In her interview, Marie said it was likely she would have been excused if she had sore eyes or high fever, as what had happened to her schoolmates. If other illnesses are given consideration, why not a mental disability?
Worldwide, major depression is set to become second only to cardiovascular disease as the most diagnosed condition by the year 2020. According to a World Health Organization document on mental health and development in 2010, one of every four households worldwide has members with mental health problems. Dr. Lourdes Ladrido-Ignacio, a noted psychiatrist, said between 17 and 20 percent of the Philippines’ adult population have psychiatric disorders.
Mental disability is often misunderstood because its symptoms are only felt by the sufferer. Many relate the condition to the “sira-ulo,” or insane, and are not aware of other types of mental disorders such as clinical depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, among others. Such disorders fall under the term “mental disability.” Their sufferers are not insane and are considered persons with disability (PWDs) protected by the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons (Republic Act No. 9422). While persons with mental disabilities are also PWDs who must be protected by the Magna Carta, they are discriminated against in various ways.
It is also important to note that there is no mental health legislation for those with mental disabilities. The Department of Health does have mental health policies, but the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons is not specifically for mental disabilities. It provides for special rights and privileges for the physically impaired (their mobility is enhanced through sidewalks, railings, ramps and the like); the hearing-impaired are benefited by TV stations that provide a sign-language inset or subtitles, and telephone companies are encouraged to install special devices for them. The Magna Carta provides for the “mentally retarded” under the provisions on education. Mental retardation, however, is only one kind of mental disability. In fact, there are mentally disabled persons with superior intelligence—the complete opposite of mentally retarded persons.
In insurance coverage, Philippine Health Insurance only covers acute attacks of mental illnesses subject to confinement. According to Dr. Israel Francis Paragas of PhilHealth, patients confined because of chronic physical illnesses such as leukemia, or in need of dialysis for kidney failure, are covered. If chronic physical illnesses are covered, why not chronic mental illnesses as well?
Medical research shows that early intervention and compliance to treatment for mental disorders—which can be done through the support of insurance coverage—can result in lesser dosage of medication and shorter length of treatment. This, in turn, will decrease the need for insurance benefits, which would be beneficial to PhilHealth.
Filipino psychiatrists are also key to better mental health legislation. In a survey-questionnaire distributed during a conference of psychiatrists at Dusit Hotel in 2011, 90 out of 95 doctors said they were not familiar with the contents of the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons. This means that they are also unaware of the 20-percent discount they must provide their patients as PWDs under the law. Out of the 95 respondent-psychiatrists, 51 did not know that their patients are covered by PhilHealth insurance. Ninety of the respondents also did not know about the pending House Bill No. 6679, which pushes for the establishment of a “Philippine Council for Mental Health.” It’s clear that Filipino psychiatrists, as primary mental health providers, have to be more involved in the crafting of health laws affecting their patients. They are, after all, supposed to be the prime movers of their patients’ rights.
The equal-protection clause enshrined in our Constitution mandates that our laws must be applied equally to all. If special considerations are given persons with high fever or sore eyes in school, why not a student suffering from a mental disorder? If people with physical impairment are given specific rights and privileges, why not also the mentally disabled? Any law that favors only a few is discriminatory and unjust not only to Marie but also to other mentally disabled Filipinos who all cry for equal protection.
Naomi Therese F. Corpuz is a junior at the University of the Philippines College of Law. She is also a mental health advocate, a blogger and a chocolatier.
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