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Frightening ourselves

Tomorrow, we mark an annual ritual, trooping to cemeteries to pay homage to the dead, laying flowers and candles at their graves and saying prayers for the “eternal repose of their souls.”

The tradition evolved, I suppose, as a way to ensure that the living remember the dead, that at least once a year, those who are up and about take time from the humdrum business of living to visit the dear departed, make sure their surroundings are kept in order, and storm Heaven with prayers for their salvation.

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And yet at the same time, Filipino tradition calls for gathering the generations at the grave sites, sharing meals, and catching up on family gossip. We really must turn every social obligation, even ones involving the dead, into a celebration and reunion. And I’m sure our ancestors and late relatives don’t mind it a bit!

Tonight, though, we observe another sort of tradition entirely, “celebrating” by reminding ourselves of the creatures in another dimension, mimicking ghosts and ghouls by donning costumes, festooning our homes with jack-o-lanterns and fake cobwebs, with children and youths making the rounds with calls of “trick or treat!”

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Time was when this was known as “nangangaluluwa” (souls visiting the living), with the tradition involving the “stealing” of household implements by the visitors who put up their stash in the town plaza, where householders are supposed to “ransom” their goods. The returns are then used for drinking sprees or “good time.”

But with urbanization and commercialization, the practice has evolved into the Westernized “Halloween,” a blander version of the native rite, with candies replacing the forced monetary contributions.

It’s all in the spirit of fun and faux horror. But Halloween has spooked some Church leaders who now call for its banning, or for replacing the fascination with otherworldly creatures with homage to saints. This has inspired, in turn, columnists like Gilda Cordero-Fernando and Ambeth Ocampo to suggest some saints and martyrs whose manner and presentation of their deaths could spark even more hysteria than the scariest Dracula. Be careful what you wish for!

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I KNOW of only one other country—aside from the United States—where the “Day of the Dead” inspires as much ghoulish delight and macabre fashion.

This is Mexico, and when I visited the country around All Saints Day some years back, the streets were filled with folks clad in all manner of frightening fashion, hopping from vehicle to vehicle, in an urbanized daredevil version of “trick or treat.”

We visitors wanted to visit a cemetery to observe how Mexicans honored the dead, but our hosts thought families might object to being treated as tourist attractions.

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Instead, we were taken to an exhibit of art installations depicting the graves of famous Mexican figures and how these might be decorated in typical, over-the-top Mexican rococo style. I remember particularly the homage to artist Frida Kahlo, which was adorned in a manner recalling her feminism and surrealism.

Mexico is as much a Catholic country as the Philippines, although there runs in Mexico a vein of deep, abiding anticlericalism. But its celebration of the “Dia de los Muertos” was lighthearted and gleeful, as much carnival as religious obligation.

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THERE is a petition making the rounds in cyberspace calling for the passage of the country’s first-ever “Mental Health Act.”

An initiative of the Philippine Psychiatric Association (PPA), the draft law “aims to protect the rights of people with mental disorders and/or disabilities” by putting in place an official body that “will oversee the policies and programs that need to be developed to prevent and treat mental illnesses, and to promote the mental health of Filipinos.”

Such a law and such policies are long overdue. The World Health Organization estimates that one in five people suffer from mental health problems worldwide, and yet in this country, there are only 0.05 psychiatrists per 100,000 people. To make matters worse, most health insurance companies still don’t cover mental-health-related issues or ailments, and, say supporters, “the stigma still weighs heavily on people suffering from mental illness.”

The PPA version of the draft bill was presented to the public recently and was turned over to Sen. Pia Cayetano, who chairs the Senate committee on health.

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MENTAL health has been described as an unacknowledged social problem, with families and policymakers preferring to sweep the problem under the rug, seeking ad hoc, private and hush-hush treatments, far from the public eye.

The petition (which may be accessed through change.org) calls for the swift passage of the proposed Mental Health Act which would create “comprehensive and rights-based” programs aimed at “developing solutions to multifaceted and serious problems concerning the mental health of Filipinos.”

Truly, our understanding of mental health issues and our response to those in need of help still have a ways to go. For most Filipinos, mentally ill persons have to conform to stereotypes in movies, TV and comics: talking to themselves, tearing at their hair, unkempt, wild-eyed and raving. There is little information regarding depression, much less its connection to suicide, and to signs of suicidal tendencies and what to do to stave off an attempted suicide or address a call for help.

Indeed, there are very real problems under our nose, and the mental health of our people, especially our stressed-out youth, is one. But instead of learning more about mental health issues and what we, as family members and as a society, can do about it, we frighten ourselves with tales of manananggal and kapre, and brace ourselves for a zombie apocalypse.

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TAGS: “Mental Health Act”, all saints day, all souls day, Filipino tradition, Halloween, Mental Health, Philippine Psychiatric Association, PPA, World Health Organization
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