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Mental health problems no laughing matter even for happy, resilient Filipinos

Even as lockdowns continue to ease across the world, many have warned that the next COVID-19 pandemic-related crisis will be that of mental health.

The fear of contracting the disease, the inability to properly grieve for loved ones lost, the uncertainty of whether one still has a job to return to -- all of these have an impact on one's mental wellbeing.

These feelings of anxiety and fearfulness are no laughing matter, not even for Filipinos who, in a Gallup International survey released in 2018, made the Philippines the third happiest country in the world, after only Fiji and Cambodia.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is more than just the physical disease. More and more, we are seeing headlines and advice from international organizations that mental health is another emerging crisis and its impact may outlast the pandemic,” said Dr. Gina Hechanova, psychologist and professor at the Department of Psychology of the Ateneo de Manila University.

During the fourth Acts of Magis: Ateneans at the Forefront of the Pandemic webinar, Hechanova said it is normal for an individual to find the situation difficult to deal with.

“It’s okay if you’re not okay at this point. What you’re feeling is perfectly normal given the abnormal situation, but don’t be afraid to reach out and seek help," she said.

In a recent Senate hearing, National Center for Mental Health director Dr. Roland Cortez said their crisis hotline has been “bombarded” with calls since the lockdown began in March.

Prior to the pandemic, the NCMH hotline receives an average of 60 to 80 calls per month. Cortez said the number has since surged to about 300 to 400 calls per month.

Those who may be susceptible to mental health issues during this pandemic, Hechanova said, include COVID-19 patients, frontliners, people who have lost their jobs, people with substance use disorders, people with a history of mental illness, and people with disabilities, among others.

"You’re not less of a person just because you need a little help. Everybody needs a little help now and then,” she added.

The World Health Organization is working closely with the Department of Health to provide mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS).

WHO assisted the Health department in developing policy guidance and advice on integrating MHPSS within health and social services and increasing access to care to these services.

According to psychologist Carolina Uno-Reyco, a member of the Philippine Mental Health Association, WHO data during the time of Typhoon Yolanda showed some 800,000 Filipinos suffered from various mental health issues in the year that followed the disaster.

Typhoon Yolanda, one of the deadliest typhoons to hit the country in recent history, left at least 6,300 casualties in its wake in the Philippines alone.

"Of this, 80,000 Filipinos, or 1 in 10, had conditions in need of further medication and support,” Uno-Reyco said.

Among the mental health conditions recorded in Yolanda-hit areas were hallucinations, excessive anxieties, social withdrawal, changes in eating or sleeping habits, strong feelings of anger, substance abuse, and persistent nightmares.

Hechanova said it is crucial to have a public health approach to mental health amid the current crisis.

“Perhaps the COVID pandemic is really not just a mental issue. It is a social disease, in a sense, because of the isolation that it causes and this whole quarantine situation. So that sense of ‘I don’t have my regular social support’ is really causing depression, anxiety, and stress,” she said.

“It means there should be recognition that the way we used to provide mental health [services] can’t be the same. If you take a look at it, the ratio of psychologists to Filipinos is 1:90,000, the ratio of psychiatrists to Filipinos is 1:275,000, and most of these mental health professionals are in major cities, So there’s an inequitable distribution,” Hechanova added.

To help people who are experiencing mental health issues during the pandemic, the Psychological Association of the Philippines, where Hechanova served as president in the past, launched Katatagan Online, an web portal that helps people deal with complicated feelings that they are having amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Katatagan Online is a platform that offers access to self-help materials, infographics, audio files, and videos meant to help users to build resiliency. The website also offers mindfulness classes and resilience classes for small groups.

“Beyond basic and physical needs, access to social support is critical and so all the more that social connection is important," Hechanova said.

"We really need each other this time."

Topics: World Health Organization , COVID-19 , Mental Health , National Center for Mental Health , Roland Cortez
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