Bringing Mental Illness Out of the Shadows


Sen. Sonny Angara

Senator Sonny Angara has been in public service for 15 years—9 years as Representative of the Lone District of Aurora, and 6 as Senator. He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws. He recently won another term in the Senate.

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Philippine society is, by nature, shock-resistant. In the face of great challenges and disheartening events, our culture somehow has the ability to be flexible and survive—some might even say with a smile on our collective faces. That culture however may be hiding the fact that now, our youth need our help in dealing with mental health issues.

In a 2018 article published in the BMC Psychiatry website, the prevalent issues about mental health in the Philippines apparently revolve around mental illness being “in the blood,” unrealistic expectations about the severity of mental illness, and unmet expectations for it being “cured.” The result of these mistaken beliefs is that people with mental health issues are ostracized. Is it any surprise then that in Filipino culture, it is better to hide these kinds of problems?

Clearly, these issues need to be addressed, especially when some are saying that more and more of our youth are affected. In a recent article, Dr. Cornelio Banaag Jr., known as the father of child psychiatry in the Philippines, stated that there is a growing mental health crisis growing among Filipino youth, the likes of which causes him to worry. In his observations, he has seen cases of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts and actions rise among children as young as ten years old. The extent of the problem worries him, he says. This bleak picture of our youth’s mental health issues, unfortunately, is backed up by evidence.

The World Health Organization stated in a 2011 release, Health of Adolescents in the Philippines that depression, anxiety, and mood disorders have become common in the youth. 42 percent of students felt sad or hopeless two weeks or more in the year before, while 17.1 percent had considered committing suicide in that same time frame, with 16.7 percent going as far as making plans about how they would do it. The WHO’s website actually states that in 2016, suicide was the leading cause of death in teenagers aged 15 to 19 across the world. Among the causes were the inability to deal with life stresses such as financial problems, relationship issues, and others.

Given the times, one shouldn’t discount the onset of social media, and how it plays into the mental health issue of the youth. The Atlantic published a landmark article in 2017, Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation, which outlined the relationship social media and depression among teenagers. Yes, there is a link, particularly in how social media accelerates the mechanisms that can cause mental health issues.

The fact that this problem is steadily growing is why I fully support all methods and projects that can help the youth in these matters. Under the aegis of the new Mental Health Law (RA 11036), which was authored by various senators including Senate President Tito Sotto and myself, and was sponsored by Senator Risa Hontiveros, the following have been put into law: the integration of mental health into the educational system, collaboration of the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) and student support services concerning a network of guidance counselors, the revitalization in the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) of the National Committee of the Filipino Family which sill include elements for parenting and mental health concerns, capacity-building for mental health workers, and other related issues.

Meanwhile, in the 2020 General Appropriations Act which we deliberated on and was signed earlier this year, we ensured that funding is available for the continuous operation of a Mental Health Hotline. This is to give the youth who are affected a so-called safe space wherein they can get reassurance and assistance.

The Department of Health estimates that 19 million Filipinos suffer from a mental health issue, with 17 million suffering from depression. And yet, there are less than 1,000 psychiatrists to address that number, and there is a similar lack of psychologists. Clearly, we have to improve our local medical community’s ability to address mental health in general, in order to help the youth in particular.

There should be a new dialogue with all stakeholders involved, when it comes to how these measures will work for the youth. They are the future of our country, and its inheritors, after all. We cannot keep issues of mental health in the shadows. We need to shine a light on what is, in essence, a silent epidemic.

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