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Ground left uncovered

Now is as good a time as any to talk about mental health.

Epidemiological evidence on mental illnesses in the Philippines is unfortunately lacking, but the National Statistics Office identified mental illnesses as the third most prevalent form of morbidity. With the uncertainty brought by the COVID-19 pandemic in addition to unsettling tensions arising around the world, understanding the importance of maintaining a sound mind alongside a sound body is even more crucial at this time.

However, mental health issues remain a murky area for most—perceived as something that should not be spoken about aloud, or something that can be swept under the rug with a “positive” attitude. It can be made into a punchline, the consequence of a “lack of faith”, or anything but the issue it really is.

In terms of awareness, there is a lot of ground to cover. Those with mental health concerns may be subject to stigmatization from both loved ones and society as a whole. Their experiences may be dismissed and they themselves rejected or deemed burdensome. Being on the receiving end of such treatment is on its own already a terrible experience; when compounded with the additional stress of the quarantine and current events, the day-to-day struggles of persons with mental health issues are exacerbated further.

Mental health awareness must permeate through all sectors of society, if we are to address this most foundational of problems. Especially now, with medical frontliners—a profession already subject to great stress under regular circumstances—continuing to fight through the pandemic and many people either in isolation or suddenly returning to work in still unsafe conditions, the need to shed light on the very real effects of these stressors is paramount. Still, it is only one facet of the inadequate way that we approach mental health.

With a surge in cases of anxiety and depression predicted by psychiatrists from the Philippine Mental Health Association, both during and after the pandemic, there are fears that the mental health system will become swamped, as many medical facilities are now. Similarly to the rest of the country’s healthcare infrastructure, the Philippines’ provisions for mental health are sorely lacking.

Mental health facilities are mostly centered in Metro Manila and are subject to funding constraints—due to the meager three to five percent allocated for them out of the national health budget—and staff shortages. The general healthcare problem of worker scarcity is even more evident in Psychiatry. The World Health Organization has a recommended target of 10 psychiatrists per 100,000 people; the Philippines sits at a very low two to three per 100,000.

People who validly need such services are thus inhibited due to these accessibility constraints, even more so for those not living in Metro Manila or are not equipped to pay the tall price for a visit to a psychiatrist, most of whom work for private practices. The additional costs of medication and continued therapy make seeking psychological help a costly matter.

The pandemic has only exacerbated these issues. Acquiring medication is impossible if you cannot contact your psychiatrist and do not have the required prescriptions; paying for the medicine is another worry entirely. As such, many individuals experiencing mental health concerns are left unattended, without a proper support system.

That said, many services have found ways to continue to provide help to those in need. The shift to online consultations, for example, provides an avenue for clients old and new to attend therapy and counseling sessions during the quarantine. Sessions are held over the phone or through video conferences, though access may still be an obstacle for some. Crisis hotlines have been set up by various facilities, receiving more calls now than before the pandemic, and different organizations have been doing their part to raise awareness and provide some form of support during these times.

The adaptations are a step in a good direction, but still a long way off from where we ought to be.

By Kyra Choa

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