The Office of Counseling and Career Services (OCCS), currently on its sixth year of conducting annual caravans every September to address the issue of mental health, is at its peak, and is proclaimed more successful than ever by its director, Dr. Aimee Guarino.
Worldwide, September is celebrated as the Suicide Prevention Month, while September 10 itself is declared as “World Suicide Prevention Day” by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) and endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO) since 2003. Considering the subject as an issue of concern within all countries, the local government and the Department of Health (DOH) themselves exerted their own efforts, starting with the indication of the World Suicide Prevention Day on their official calendar. Extending beyond the prevention month itself, the Philippine Senate passed the Philippine Mental Health Bill, also known as Senate Bill No. 1345 last May 2. It seeks to publicly sponsor mental health services and to integrate them into the current public health system.
“Happy Mind, Happy Life”
Besides reaching out to students by providing therapy and other services, the OCCS also implements campaigns that address depression and raise awareness on suicide prevention. While OCCS does not necessarily place itself in the sole commemoration of the event, September has been their chosen month in attending to any issue that would concern students within campus.
With activities lined up for the whole month, this year’s theme was “Happy Mind, Happy Life”, and the caravan opened with a mass held at the Pearl of Great Price Chapel last September 11. Tracing back its roots, happiness has been the central objective of the OCCS when organizing these caravans ever since Guarino assumed office four years ago. “We still wanted to spread and really invoke happiness to [the] Lasallian community,” Guarino emphasizes.
The caravan, despite following the same theme, involves a distinct topic every year. Attending to the increasing number of those with mental health problems, OCCS established school mental health awareness as their subject. “Actually, it’s more of understanding what’s mental health, and then how to know or spot students, children, or colleagues with mental health problems. Or how to respond. “Yung parang first aid,” she adds.
Unlike the previous years, OCCS caters to a wider audience. It has been only during 2017 when they have involved parents, altogether with Lasallian Mission (LM) formators, the administration division, the faculty combined with different counselors in Metro Manila’s La Salle schools, and student leaders partnered with the Student Leadership Involvement, Formation and Empowerment (SLIFE) office. Another significant difference this year was the invitation of various speakers from Medical City, which the OCCS has tied up with, together with their psychiatry department. A notable speaker, Dr. Carnello Banaa, the father of child and adolescent psychiatry in the Philippines, was also invited to properly address the issue at hand.
The involvement of various speakers branches out to the different types of audiences they intend to cater to. Guarino says that the various talks in the caravan are designed to fit their audience. Recognizing many improvements of the caravan from the past few years, the fundamental change OCCS celebrates is the wider audience it reached.
Other activities throughout the month of September were also attended by more participants. It included an “Activity for Lasallian Mission Partners and other Support Staff” and an “Activity for Student Organizations (USG and CSO) and Lasallian Mission Volunteers”, both held last September 15. Meanwhile, “Activity for Faculty, Academic Service Faculty, and Lasallian Counselors” was held in September 28.
The OCCS and their services
The OCCS is not only active during September. All year round, they are open and available to the Lasallian community’s needs. They provide services, including consultation, psychological assessment, crisis intervention, counseling, and more. For these services, they encourage anyone in need to come, and for others to refer those they know who may be in need as well.
The core service that OCCS provides is counseling. One module they mandate students to take is SAS1000 for freshmen students, which assesses their personality development as they enter college. OCCS is proposing to open SAS2000 and SAS3000 for second and third year students, respectively. They also assist in the career formation of a student, which includes organizing job fairs for prospective graduates.
To address the increasing number of students that need assistance, OCCS partnered with Medical City for an easier link when clinical cases they attend to increases. They also endorse students to University of the East Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Medical Center (UERM), University of Santo Tomas (UST) Hospital, and Philippine General Hospital (PGH) with only P100 for the initial assessment and P50 for succeeding check-ups. While some prefer exclusive hospitals like Asian Hospital to avoid longer lines, majority still avail of the hospitals they recommend. Guarino said that “They go to the ones that we refer na mura. Nakita din naman kasi namin na maganda yung report nila, may mga recommendations. So why not avail of that?” (They first go to our cheap referrals. We see that their reports reach our standards, others also recommend them. So why not avail of that?)
Lasallians and the OCCS
One student* shares, “I came to know OCCS through SAS1000. I wanted to talk to someone who can understand my problem psychologically and this problem is not something that I would talk to with my friends or even family. That’s why I considered approaching them.”
They were facing an issue where they needed guidance on how to take “[The] right path in life”. Initially, they were hesitant because they had to open themselves up to a counselor whom they had never met before, especially since this was a walk-in. Nonetheless, the student reveals that the process was helpful for them due to the professionalism and attention the counselor exhibited. “My counselor was listening intently to my problem and she had an open mind through the advice she gave me. It is true what I heard from someone that these counselors are always willing to hear one out and be there for them. Yes, it is helpful too since they’re professionals which increased my trust level with them,” they narrate.
Similarly, another student* shares that they came to know of counseling services through test results from SAS1000. They were experiencing depression and anxiety, as well as suicidal thoughts and hatred for oneself. These were amplified when a friend of the student backstabbed them.
Initially, the student was hesitant since they weren’t used to opening up to people. She narrates that the counselor would ask how they were feeling, before opening the floor for them to share their thoughts. Eventually, the student could not continue attending sessions due to business in schedule. They reveal that they did not feel the effectiveness of the program due to the difficulty they experienced opening up to counsellors.
Another student* shares that they learned of the counseling services of OCCS through Facebook and was suffering from depression. Initially, they were hesitant to go to the sessions, but were able to convince themselves to go since they had nothing to lose. Unfortunately, after several sessions, they were unable to alleviate their depression.
Getting help, dealing with hesitation
In dealing with mental problems, hesitation is a key factor that hinders individuals to seek for help. According to Ms. Kris Fermante, OCCS Counsellor for the Gokongwei College of Engineering (GCOE), help-seeking behavior can have a direct effect on the intention of an individual to ask for assistance. Fermante explained that she tested the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) in the Filipino setting, and has settled with three major factors that affect these intentions of seeking help.
“When it comes to La Salle, attitude has a positive effect on one’s intentions. They can go because they’ve observed that their attitude is positive towards seeking help. However, when it comes to subjective norms, as affected also by peers, friends, family, when they perceive it as negative, it’s a no-no, and may stigma pa rin,” the counsellor elaborated.
Furthermore, according to Fermante’s study, the third factor is called as Perceived Behavioral Control Therapy, which proved to be “significantly positive” towards the intentions of the individuals. “I assumed that in that test, they know may access sila sa counselling,” she commented.
Fermante also cites that there are also cases wherein students’ perception of themselves being able to “manage, solve their own problems,” turns out negatively. “When it comes to the self, there’s a direct effect, but it’s negative. Students think that they can solve their own problems, that’s why they are hesitant to go to counselling. Students believe that they can,” she concluded.
An additional service that OCCS encourages is their referral system. Students can refer an individual to OCCS when necessary, which in turn, benefits them since they have overcome one step from hesitation. For more references, OCCS has published a referral guide on the DLSU website.
Abolishing the stigma
Given that the Philippines still suffers from its conservative roots, some are steering away from the notion that depression is a disorder, and most especially, accepting that everyone can be a victim.
Based on the turnout of the caravan, Guarino believes that the Lasallian community is progressing towards an open discussion about mental illness. “Siguro yung indicator that they’re open, is [their attendance to our seminars]”, Guarino says. Even deans and vice deans were part of the audience. “They’re not only open, they’re also curious,” Guarino adds. According to the director, they see that the community is open and wants to help. “Sometimes they’re confused on what to do, and how to respond to situations; that’s what I’ve observed, and maybe that’s why these people participate,” she emphasizes.
Guarino says that we have to accept stress as part of our daily activities, and is normal. “It’s normal to get angry, to be anxious. It’s normal to be sad, to be inattentive; it’s not normal if one would not feel these,” she states. “Pero it’s how to manage, at kami ang katulong ninyo to manage these,” she adds. Guarino further explains that being in the state of severe depression can be treated, through medication, or clinical counselling. “If you seek professional help, it can be made better. The moment na you are hesitant, though, all the more that you really may not manage,” the OCCS director remarks.
Guarino expounds that they are the people that the Lasallian community can actually contact, or be the resource for mental health concerns. “Among the departments here, kami yung practitioners,” she explained.
The office also aids the students with mental issues with what they have to learn to try and manage whenever the office is not accessible. “We teach them techniques through our programs and counselling sessions, from evidence-based practice. Our ultimate goal is to make our clients independent, for them to manage their weaknesses,” Guarino emphasizes.
Their office still strongly suggests for people to seek help, in ways that are accessible to the students, most especially. “If you are suffering from depression, there’s a loss of interest, and it can really cause academic failure. You may need therapy, medication, that will help you solve your problems, not on your own,” Fermante opines. OCCS, and their mission to address this increasing problem, stresses that the only one who can help you is yourself, starting with having the courage to avail of the services that they may need.
In hopes of conquering mental health problems, OCCS urges students to approach them when situations would surface. For more information, one may check the OCCS Brochure and Helpdesk Announcements, or contact them through their direct line, (632) 524-4611 or 536-0226 (Ext. no. 419).
*Names are omitted to preserve privacy