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Minding the gap in Philippines’ mental health

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Cristian Newman

Mental health remains a misunderstood topic in the Philippines. People with mental illness are often discriminated. This stigma in the local setting only shows that a lot of Filipinos lack  proper information about mental health. Thus, the social distance between the public and mentally ill people is getting farther.

When Senator Risa Hontiveros pitched for the passage of the Mental Health Law last year, she noted that one in five Filipino adults suffer from mental or psychiatric disorder. She said that the number of suicide cases in the country has steadily risen over the years.

According to a 2014 report of the World Health Organization (WHO), there were a total of 2,558 suicide cases due to mental health problems in the country in 2012 alone. And, as reflected on the National Center for Mental Health’s statistics, the suicide rate for men and women in the country are 2.5 and 1.7, respectively, per 100,000 members of the population.

The numbers tell that the Philippines is still in the long run of addressing the issue, from the implementation of the mental health plan up to shifting of services and resources to mental health facilities across the country, and integration of mental health services into primary care.

As defined by WHO, mental health is “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

Mental health is important because all aspects of people’s lives is affected by it. It affects how people make decisions, handles stress and relates to other people. It influences the way how people look at themselves, their lives and other people in their lives. If one person experience any mental health problems, his mood, behavior and way of thinking could be affected.

Factors that may contribute to mental health problem of an individual include: biological factors, such as genes or brain chemistry; life experiences, such as trauma and abuse; and family’s mental health problem history.

Mental disorders are generally characterized by a combination of abnormal thoughts, perceptions, emotions, behavior and relationships with others. It may be caused by depression, bipolar affective disorder, schizophrenia and other psychoses, dementia, intellectual disabilities and developmental disorders.

WHO said that there are effective strategies to prevent mental disorders and there are several ways to alleviate the suffering caused by them. In this matter, access to healthcare and social services capable of providing treatment and social support is the key. However, access to healthcare facilities and inadequate number of skilled human resources for mental health remain as the main barriers in providing treatment and care, especially in low- and middle-income countries.

In the Philippines, access to mental health facilities and institutions remains uneven throughout the country. Most of the facilities are situated within the National Capital Region and the country’s major cities that makes accessibility a challenge for people who live far from these areas.

Moreover, the Philippines has only one psychiatrist for every 250,000 mentally ill patients, far from the ideal ratio of one to 50,000 patients.

The rate of mental health hospitals in the country is at 0.002, while the rate of beds in the hospitals is at 4.486 per 100,000 population. In addition, the rate of persons treated in mental health outpatient facilities and mental health day treatment facilities is only at 12.25 and 4.35, respectively, per 100,000 population.

The country only spends about 5% of the health budget on mental health. Of the total number, 95% are spent on the operation, maintenance and salary of personnel of mental hospitals. The Department of Health (DoH), earlier this year, said that the agency is allocating about P1 billion for the upgrade and development of mental health facilities across the country, the highest in the history of the agency.

Although there is still a huge gap in scaling up mental health in the Philippines, there has been progress in terms of addressing this concern.

In September last year, the DoH, together with the WHO, and Natasha Goulbourn Foundation, launched a 24-hour suicide prevention hotline called Hopeline, a phone-based counseling service for individuals who suffer from crisis situation and depression.

Last May, the Senate of the Philippines passed the Senate Bill 1354 or the Philippine Mental Health Act of 2017 that seeks to integrate mental health services and programs in the public health system. The bill also mandates the government to provide basic mental health services at the community level and psychiatric, psychosocial and neurologic services in all regional, provincial and tertiary hospitals.

“Because of this measure, our people with mental health needs will no longer suffer silently in the dark. They will no longer endure an invisible illness and fight an invisible war,” Sen. Hontiveros, the sponsor and principal author of the bill said. — Mark Louis F. Ferrolino

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