“They said I was crazy,” shares 18-year-old Erica, her gaze focused on her lap where her hands have been resting for the past half hour, as if proclaiming an internal apology. She is one of the many who have been slapped with vapid labels—“over dramatic”, “paranoid”, “too emotional”—just a few words among a myriad of other adjectives used to glorify infamy. But in reality, it was much more than that. In an attempt to make light of a melancholic situation, clinical depression, described as intense feelings of sadness and worthlessness that start to put a strain on one’s daily functions, was put on the back burner.
The Philippines is a country plagued with troubles, and mental illness risks becoming a triviality—but that shouldn’t be the case. An article by Rappler shares how in 2006, the Department of Health reported anxiety, alcoholism, and depression to be the most common mental health problems in the country. The study revealed 32% of surveyed employees to have experienced mental health problems. If that number isn’t staggering enough yet, the World Health Organization found 16% of Filipino youth from ages 13 to 15 to be seriously suicidal, with 13% having committed actual attempts. But it is important to note that those numbers are of the few courageous individuals who have found it within themselves to speak out about their problem. What about the hundreds or thousands of others who have to keep their visceral recession under wraps for fear of being discriminated?
“It took me years to open up about my condition because every time I tried, I was accused of just wanting attention,” laments Erica, who holds pop culture and media partly responsible for the stigma. “TV makes depression look so glamorous, as if it was a mark of teen angst and depth,” she continues. Instead of being taken seriously, depression became a badge worn on one’s sleeve like an extra chevron on an insignia.
For Lou, a sudden big change was the first warning sign. Contrary to her usual upbeat personality, her parents noticed she wasn’t leaving her room or talking to anyone; she wouldn’t go online, and would just stare at her phone, listening to music the whole day. She wasn’t eating or sleeping well either. Taking notice, her parents brought her to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed her case afterwards.
It was a different matter for Joanne*, who had already noticed the signs since childhood: when she was angry or frustrated, she had a tendency to hurt herself or cry excessively, rather than throwing tantrums like other children. This, to her, was like the potential for depression, which became fully realized later on. Even though she noticed it at a young age, she didn’t give it much thought until she grew older, when the effects sank in.
Erica, on the other hand, was already exposed to mental illness in the family even before it hit her directly. “My mother had depression as well, and my aunt was [diagnosed with] schizophrenia,” she claims. “I knew it was hereditary, but I hoped so badly that I wouldn’t be next. Turns out, all it needed was a trigger.” Despite seeing it in the family, she still found it hard to admit it to herself.
Sometimes, the first reaction to bad news isn’t as negative as you might expect. When Lou found out that it was depression, a part of her was relieved. She recalls her first reaction being, “There’s something really wrong with me; it [wasn’t] in my head lang … it felt more tangible, it felt like a problem I could solve.” But later on, she realized the gravity of the problem. She realized, “This is gonna be my life from now on,” and sometimes, that idea kept her awake at night crying, thinking she wouldn’t be able to do things normally anymore. But she asserts that putting a name on it helped her accept the situation, and realize that, “This is my life, but I can fix this.”
“I was told to ‘just get over it’,” Erica recalls the first time she tried to get help. Unfortunately, depression is the last thing you should be shoving under a metaphorical carpet—in doing so, you could be breeding lethalities in the making. Telling victims that their problems will go away just isn’t effective at all, and only discourages them from seeking assistance even more.
While it is important to be there for people, in the case of those with clinical depression, social help is usually not enough. Presence and friendship is not a realistic long-term solution for mental illness victims. More often than not, a depressive person needs medical help, in the form of antidepressants, psychotherapy, or other avenues to release and stabilize their emotions.
Sometimes the need for medical help is so great—Lou tells us she takes antidepressants in order to sleep, because without them, she wouldn’t be able to. It’s not exactly the kind of thing that can be replaced with other kinds of help, even though sometimes, the depressive person doesn’t want to admit that they need it—Lou shares of a time when she stopped taking her pills, thinking she could handle it, before realizing that it was the pills themselves that were making her feel that way. On the other side of the spectrum, Joanne* tells a hopeful story of how she has stopped going to therapy and since dealt with the problem on her own.
Unfortunately, another factor which stifles mental health progress in the country is the availability and cost of seeking professional help. Many victims simply cannot afford therapy. A single session with a top therapist can set you back thousands of Pesos. Additionally, it appears that some of the country’s professionals have yet to fully box themselves out of the conservative mold that has made mental illness taboo. Dewi, 20-years-old, recalls her session with a psychiatrist who only added insult to injury. “I opened up completely, only to be lambasted by her extremely Catholic views. I felt judged, and it made me feel so much worse. To think, this is the kind of ‘help’ that people pay for,” she shares. “We have such a long way to go with regards to quality mental health help.”
Dealing with depression and schoolwork
To avoid stress, Lou never takes on a full load. She used to have many orgs, but now just sticks to one. She admits there are times that she slips up, but with constant maintenance of her health and emotional state, she is able to push through.
Joanne*, on the other hand, shares that despite having faced the problem for a long time, it is only nowadays that has she been able to really cope with it and change her perspective on life. She goes on to explain that one of the things that really helped was having someone to open up to.
What to say to others with depression
Depressive people know that they are not alone, and that depression is hard for others to admit. Because they themselves have been through the highs and lows of fighting depression, here is what they have to say to others who may be going through the same thing:
“It gets better.” As Lou says, “There are days talaga na it’s everything to you, na parang you can’t get up, you can’t do this, you can’t do that … but there are [also] gonna be days or weeks, months, years, na it’s just a small thing in your brain that you don’t have to think about all the time. You have to take care of it, syempre, but you don’t have to submit your everything to it.”
“Get help.” Go to a doctor; take care of it. It shouldn’t be self-diagnosed, it should be taken up with a professional—although you should ensure that your professional is someone who understands your case. Not only does this give you assurance, it can also be a big step towards taking care of the problem.
“Let yourself be understood by others.” Don’t shy away from your friends; let people in. It is common for depressive people to assume that no one understands them, and trusting others is a scary thing. But once you find someone who understands you, it’s reassuring and hopeful.
Fighting the stigma
On the other hand, what do they have to say to those who are forming this wrong idea, or who are creating the stigma against depression?
“See from our perspective.” It’s not a small issue—it’s not a perspective in life wherein just “thinking positively” is going to solve the problem. It’s something that can destroy a person from the inside. Depressive people need empathy from the general public—they need people to understand what they are going through, and to think before they speak.
“Depression should not be used as an excuse.” By using “I’m too depressed to …” as an excuse not to do things, the stigma against actually depressive people grows. Downplaying depression makes it seem easier and simpler than it is. As Joanne* puts it, “It degrades who we are and what we can do, because we really try [to get better and to work through it].”