Mental health should also be given priority

By Henrylito D. Tacio

When Typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines in 2013, over 800,000 people suffered from different mental health conditions the following year, according to the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO).

“Of this, 80,000 Filipinos, or 1 in 10, had conditions in need of further medication and support,” psychologist Carolina Uno-Reyco from the Philippine Mental Health Association was quoted as saying by Rappler.

As the number of people infected with SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) – continues to increase, it is expected that more Filipinos will experience anxiety and depression due to unprecedented periods of quarantine, isolation, and uncertainty.

As such, mental health should also be given a priority, urges Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, chair of the Senate Committee on Health.  “In this time of pandemic, we should also ensure that mental health is valued, promoted and protected,” he said in a statement.  “Aside from physical health, ‘yung mental health, napaka-importante rin po.”

Go appealed to the Departments of Health and Social Welfare and Development to bolster efforts to extend psychosocial assistance to individuals struggling with mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression and other more serious psychological issues.

In a press release, Go said that “the ongoing pandemic and subsequent disease-containment responses have created conditions that are taking a toll on the mental health of many adults and children.”

The senator from Davao also noted that public measures – such as physical distancing and self-isolation – can cause loneliness and fear in people which in turn increases anxiety and stress.

Moreover, people receiving mental health services before the pandemic, he added, may have been cut off in areas under community quarantine.

Mental illness ranks third among the types of disabilities in the country, the health department admits.  Young professionals have also become victims of mental health illnesses, as intentional self-harm is the ninth leading cause of death among those aged 20-24 years old.

“Mental health and well-being are a concern of all,” says the health department in a statement, adding that it is addressing concerns related to MNS (mental, neurological and substance use disorders).

The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) reports that one in four persons in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.  Every year, 800,000 people die due to suicide, it adds.

In the Philippines, data from the health department showed 3.3 million Filipinos suffer from depression and another 3.1 million have anxiety disorders.  The suicide rates are 2.5 in males per 100,000 and 1.7 in females.

“Let us not judge those who have mental health issues,” DOH Undersecretary Eric Domingo was quoted as saying by state-owned Philippine News Agency.  “Let us think that it is like hypertension and diabetes when we see someone with symptoms of depression.”

The WHO reports some 15.3 million people with drug use disorders.  In the Philippines, drug use prevalence among those aged 10 to 69 years old is at 2.3%, which accounts for 33.44% of adults and 66.20% of pediatric neurological out-patient visits per year.

The WHO Global School-Based Health Survey conducted in 2011 has shown that in the Philippines, 16% of students between 13-15 years old have “ever seriously considered attempting suicide” while 13% have “actually attempted suicide one or more times during the past year.”

Bullying, early pregnancy and depression – not necessarily in that order – are some of the culprits why children and teenagers resort to suicide, which is defined as the intentional taking of one’s life.

A few years back, the United Nations health agency considered the Philippines as having “the highest incidence of depression in Southeast Asia.”  Only one-third of those suffering from depression seek professional help, according to the health department.

More often than not, depression is hard to detect among Filipinos.  “People confuse depression for normal sadness,” Dr. Randy Dellosa, a psychiatrist, was quoted as saying.

“Depression is a devastating illness that affects the total being – physically, emotionally, and spiritually,” wrote Frank B. Minirth and Paul D. Meier in their book, Happiness Is a Choice.  “The emotional pain of depression is more severe than the physical pain of a broken leg.”

Many people think depression is not an illness, but something that one eventually snaps out of.  “That’s the reason why so many people who are suffering from depression feel embarrassed to seek help,” said Senator Grace Poe, who filed a resolution on the increasing incidence of suicides and depression in the country.

“Approximately 10% of patients seeking consultation in a family practice clinic are already showing signs of depression, some maybe in early stages of depression, and some in a chronic stage,” writes Dr. Edward C. Tordesillas, clinical associate professor of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the Philippine General Hospital.

According to Dr. Tordesillas, some patients have gone on what he calls “doctor shopping,” since they were unrelieved of their symptoms.

Meanwhile, Jean Goulbourn was not surprised at all when there was a recent spike in calls to the Hopeline hotline for Filipinos feeling depressed.  On April 17, Asia Times reported that the COVID-19 pandemic “has spurred a near 200% increase in calls in the past month.”

“We’re getting calls that we never did before – 70% to 85% are high anxiety,” Goulbourn, a fashion designer who launched “Hopeline 24/7 emotional crisis line” in 2011.  With a small crew, the hotline answers phone calls and links what could be high-risk callers to psychiatrists and therapists.

The spike in calls alarms Goulbourn as, according to her, “there are fewer than 5,000 licensed psychiatrists, psychologists and guidance counselors available for anyone feeling lost or wanting self-harm.”

Last May 28, Go presided over a Senate Health Committee hearing to discuss Senate Bill 1471 which seeks to amend Republic Act 11036 or the Mental Health Act.  Filed by Senator Juan Edgardo Angara and supported by Go himself, the bill will enhance Section 5 of the Act or the Rights of Service Users.

The new section will provide Filipinos with mental health conditions immediate access to the “compensation benefits and/or any special financial assistance that he or she is entitled to under existing laws should the service user sustain temporary or permanent mental disability while in performance of duty or by reason of his or her office or position.” – ###

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