Mental health in PH
In a country like mine where resilience and happiness are keys to survival and everyday living, it is difficult to comprehend that mental illness is a possibility. Depressed? Just sad. Bipolar? Just moody. Schizophrenic? Maybe out of this world. But never sick and in need of any kind of intervention.
This is the sad reality.
Way back in college, I was an extraordinary student with extraordinary dreams. I completed two degrees in four years and I simply wanted to become everything. My zest and energy were endless. I lacked sleep all the time, yet was on hyper mode all day. I could go through a number of readings without missing an idea. I was even training as an athlete.
My parents were the luckiest people. I was on the dean’s list. I was representing my school. I had a lot of friends. I was on my way to fulfilling my dream of becoming a lawyer.
Then, suddenly, I felt like crying and regretting my choices. Why this, why that. I began skipping classes and sleeping a lot. I started blaming people and losing friends in the process. Hurting them, too, emotionally. A friend who had noticed my behavior suggested that I seek psychiatric treatment. I was shocked, like any other person would be on hearing this for the first time. In my head I was in denial. Nothing’s wrong with me, I told myself silently.
Then came the pressure of law school. I became so depressed and anxious that I had to be pulled out of school. Then I began having suicidal thoughts, which stayed for months. I suffered in silence, thinking that the only way out for me was death.
Then certain circumstances made me so happy, too happy, that I became manic. I went through my four years worth of savings in three weeks. Bought useless objects, went places, got into a car accident, was enraged by my family, and, bravely, without a second thought, climbed up to the roof of our house.
My parents asked for help to tone me down, and finally, I was diagnosed as a bipolar. It made me happy because I was in the company of musicians, artists and CEOs. But here’s the thing: I refused medical treatment. As a result, I was taken to a mental ward to be taught the importance of medication. And I’m proud to say that it worked.
After a year, how am I as a mental health patient? And how do I perceive the situation in my country in light of my personal experience?
Putting these questions within the larger context of Philippine society, I am the exception to the rule. Maybe I have everything anyone cannot imagine a mental patient should have—family support, financial stability to afford expensive maintenance medications, understanding colleagues, a bipolarity support group, and an ever-supportive doctor. While I am living this stable and good life of acceptance, support and self-love, the rest of my age group who suffer the same illness either are not financially capable to buy medications, who suffer shame and discrimination even from the ones closest to them, or who simply don’t know that they’re going through mental illness.
In fact, the concept of mental illness is blurred and nonexistent in my culture. In fact, the treatment of mental illness is not a priority of my country’s government.
From my experience, I will emphasize four things to keep a mental patient sane: the availability of medications, family and peer support, discipline, and self-acceptance.
Access to medications is out of the reach of the poor and marginalized. To keep a sufferer of bipolar disorder stable, for example, around P5,000 to P7,000 a month is needed. Insurance companies do not cover mental health hospitalizations and medications in the Philippines, and PhilHealth still needs to work on adding mental health medications and services to its medical packages. Currently, only The National Center for Mental Health dispenses medicines for the indigent and provides them with mental health services.
Another issue is the decentralization of health services to local government units. If mental health is not a priority, then mental health services, in-house psychiatrists, and discounted or free medications won’t be available for the ones who need these most.
Family and peer support really depends on the culture or “way of living” of the ones surrounding a mental health patient. It’s all a matter of knowledge and experience. Only a psychiatrist or a fellow mental health patient with anxiety disorder, depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder will know what it feels like to experience such a condition. Thus, these experiences will shatter the shame and stigma present in our society at the moment. We have terms such as “may saltik,” “loka-loka,” and “wala sa sarili” to describe such conditions. We can’t blame people for lacking knowledge about mental health, but we can’t let shame and stigma about mental conditions stay for long.
Discipline is all about trusting your doctor’s regimen. In bipolars, for example, it’s about sleeping on time, not drinking liquor, avoiding too much stress, and doing regular exercise. It’s about eating on time and taking good care of yourself. It’s also about keeping a certain “fighting” disposition in life to keep you going.
Last is self-acceptance. I’ve been writing about my condition as a person with disability and as a bipolar on my Facebook wall. But admittedly, too, I’ve questioned why, of all people, I was the one who experienced this so-called “tragedy.” Many people with mental health conditions also struggle for the same question. They look for answers to no avail, until they leave this life. They keep finding answers until they lose motivation to live and love the only life they have. The first three elements will really help to boost self-acceptance. Embracing your monsters will make you a stronger person.
At some point in my story, the shame and stigma of the mere act of consulting with a health professional made my situation change from bad to worse. It’s not just me, but also every single patient that my doctor has handled. This is the story of every Filipino mental health patient: hiding all symptoms as something “bearable” and “understandable” before he or she does something uncontrollable and beyond comprehension.
This piece is a shameless plug for mental health awareness in the Philippines. This is a cry for help for mental health patients like myself, who need all the support we can get. This is an experience of almost killing myself and bouncing back as a positive and forward-looking person.
Finally, this is an appeal to the government to prioritize mental health, specifically the passage of a grassroots-led mental health law, and pushing through with policies supportive of mental health patients’ needs.
Kristel Clarence G. Geneta, 23, is in the second year of a master’s program in health social science at De La Salle University.
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