Understanding Mental Illness Stigma in the Philippines

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Update Date 19/05/2020 . 5 mins read
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Mental illness stigma in the Philippines is still rampant, but in recent years, there has been a steady progression towards real, lasting change.

The culture of prejudice against those diagnosed with mental disorders is slowly shifting towards acceptance and understanding. 

More spaces are opening up in Filipino society for a healthy dialogue on this issue. Each story is slowly reversing this sense of shame and pushing the conversation forward.

Recent legislation further supports these long overdue changes. In 2018, after almost 20 years in Congress, the Mental Health Bill (Republic Act No. 11036) was signed into law, affirming that mental health is a basic human right in the Philippines. 

DOH names Depression a Serious Health Condition

The Department of Health (DOH) now considers depression as a serious health condition.

This is a reassuring development, especially considering that over 3 million Filipinos are living with some form of depression.

In fact, depression has become as prevalent as the common cold, with the ones most at risk being young Filipinos. 8 in every 100,000 Filipinos die by suicide. These cases mostly involve male Filipinos between the ages of 15 and 29. 

When it comes to overcoming mental illness stigma in the Philippines, we are at the cusp of a real breakthrough. But in order to better visualize the possibilities, we must first look back to where it all began. 

The Root Causes of Mental Illness Stigma in the Philippines

To better understand mental illness stigma in the Philippines, we must first consider it within the context of the country’s culture and history. 

Filipinos pride themselves in being able to endure. This culture of resilience is defined by Filipinos’ ability to adapt well in the face of often overwhelming “tragedy, adversity, trauma,” such as natural disasters and socio-economic upheavals, which have become major sources of stress and anxiety for generations.

Historian Jose Canoy sees Filipino resilience as a defense mechanism, assumed by many in the absence of choice. So it’s become common to practice to solve problems on our own and to downplay mental health issues, whether it’s from our own experience or that of someone close to us. 

The local language reflects these limitations. The catch-all word “baliw” (crazy) is often used to refer to almost all mental health conditions on the spectrum. 

On a larger scale, mental illness stigma in the Philippines is borne of a lack of public health education. To this day, there are still people who have not been fully educated about the distinctions between bipolar disorders or schizophrenia, for instance. 

But through more and more mental health awareness programs in schools and in the workplace, more societal and cultural biases about mental illness will slowly fall away to make way for awareness and understanding.

Common Obstacles to Seeking Care in the Philippines

According to the Gallup 2019 Global Emotions report, the Philippines is one of the world’s most emotional countries.

Even though this culture of catharsis could be viewed as helpful for those struggling with mental health issues, it can also be precisely what hinders expression.

Why? Because those suffering from mental health issues seek help from family and friends or simply retreat into themselves, without considering professional help. 

When someone does decide to open up about mental and emotional struggles, most dismiss their conditions as easily remedied, often by religion or simple socialization.

Others can also make hasty generalizations, saying that someone with a mental illness cannot function properly in society. And the only option is for them to be committed to a mental institution.

The price of therapy in the Philippines also becomes another obstacle. Professional help is costly, requiring several thousands of pesos. A typical therapy session at a private hospital costs about P2,000. 

However, these obstacles are now being addressed, as the government is recognizing that breaking mental illness stigma in the Philippines is a pressing need.

So the recent Philippine Mental Health Law has improved access to mental health services. The Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (Philhealth) now covers confinement, checkups, and medication for mental health patients. 

How Can We Overcome Mental Illness Stigma in the Philippines? 

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that one in four people worldwide will experience mental or neurological disorders throughout their lives. At present, 450 million people suffer from mental disorders. So this hits closer to home than we might think. At some point in our lives, we or someone we care about will likely experience some form of mental illness. 

There is not an overnight solution to breaking mental illness stigma in the Philippines. But we can start by taking steps towards change, in our own interactions within our social circles.

Filipino culture is defined by openness. So this can translate to how we treat social issues, like a lack of mental health awareness. We can begin by acknowledging the varying degrees and wide spectrum of mental illnesses and how it manifests differently in each person. 

A person’s mental health is defined by certain characteristics, such as biology, experience, and trauma. 

Breaking mental illness stigma in the Philippines can start with seeing people as more than just their condition. We must encourage one another to speak our truth and create a culture that encourages dialogue without shame. 

How to Support Someone with a Mental Illness

If you’re unsure where to begin, here are some tips to supporting a loved one with mental illness, according to the Mental Health Foundation UK:

  1. Create a safe space. Let them share without judgment or distractions. Put your cellphone away. Clear your schedule to let them know you value the privilege of this conversation.
  2. Let them determine the pace of the conversation. Don’t rush or force them to share more than they are willing to. Just be attentive to their cues. Stop or pause when needed.
  3. Don’t try to fix things immediately. As much as it’s tempting to give your own opinion, refrain from making assumptions or generalizations. Don’t try to fix them. Simply be there for them.
  4. Ask open-ended questions. This will allow them to share, in their own words. It also lets the conversation flow freely. The less pressure, the better.
  5. Listen intently. Even though you don’t agree with certain things, don’t negate them. Constantly reinforce that you understand them, or at least you are trying to. 

If you sense that they are not ready to talk just yet, don’t take this personally. Just be ready to offer support. And direct them to the right resources in more serious cases, such as a mental health crisis. Simply empower them with choice. 

Forging the path to understanding takes time. And any lasting, social change requires patience. This means breaking mental illness stigma in the Philippines on every level—from the highest rungs of government to the local government units, down to the most basic unit of society, which is the family. Ultimately, what we lack isn’t just awareness, but an awakening to compassion.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to empathy.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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