Mental Illnesses: The Silent Epidemic By Aaron Sta. Maria | 26 November 2016
One in four people in the world will be affected by mental disorders at some point in their lives. They could be anyone—your friends, your parents, your siblings—and we are not doing enough about it.
Last September, as I was waiting for my appointment in the lobby of the psychiatric ward of a government hospital I go to for psychotherapy, I overheard two orderlies talking to each other about something that had disturbed me deeply. They were joking about the quasi-taboo “s-word” of any mental health institution: suicide. Apparently one of them possessed the idea that the lives of the people living inside the ward would be simpler if they were to just end it all. Little did they know that the topic of their little conversation runs all too rampant.
According to the 2014 report “Health For The World’s Adolescents” by the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability for both sexes aged 10-19, and suicide is the leading cause of death among adolescents. In 2012 alone, approximately 1.3 million young people committed suicide.
Still, there are worse figures for the Philippines: 4.5 million Filipinos are depressed—the highest in Southeast Asia—and only one-third will seek out help from a specialist. This may be attributed to the small number of specialists (an estimated 700 psychiatrists and 1,000 psychiatric nurses), but the reason is largely due to the stigma associated with mental illnesses.
Why do diseases of the body garner sympathy and diseases of the mind garner disgust? Is there a clause out there somewhere stating that an illness has to be visible and/or understandable by the general public in order for the sufferer to gain acceptance? The stigma put by the society on mental illness sufferers is a double jeopardy. This stigma is rooted in our visceral fear of the unknown—should that be eradicated, so will the needless veil of mystery that surrounds mental illnesses be. Combating this fear would take a lot of effort, cooperation, and understanding of the people around them.
However, until the stigma could be stopped completely, sufferers would be less likely to seek help and might altogether try to hide their symptoms due to the fear of being ridiculed. This is where the tricky part comes in: not all sufferers of mental disorders show obvious symptoms. There are what psychiatrists call high-functioning sufferers who could go on their normal lives daily by masking their disorders with socially-acceptable demeanor.
People in dire need of help would be prefer not to reveal their condition to anyone owing to the fear of people lambasting them as pariahs. Such stigma would hinder early intervention that is vital for a fast recovery, thus condemning them to a prolonged agony. Acknowledging the validity of mental illness on its own merits would greatly encourage sufferers that what they have is not something to be ashamed of but rather a disorder that needs and has a cure.
Furthermore, it is necessary to avoid the invalidation of the pain a sufferer of mental health disorder experiences. This includes avoiding the ridicule that is associated with such disorders. The levity other people treat this grave issue paints a stark contrast to the painful and dark realities that these people call their lives. It is only right to treat them with respect as one human would another.
It is of utmost importance to help sufferers should they make the effort to reach out and confess their pain. Creating an environment that encourages a healthy exchange of such conversations would open an avenue to help sufferers ease their pain by voicing out what’s bothering them. Additionally, should one not be able to help a sufferer directly, a simple referral to a specialist would be of great help.
On a macro scale, creating mental health legislations would ultimately aid those in need of support. A comprehensive legislation covering the rights of sufferers, responsibilities of the government and the education of the public would erase the stigma once and for all. In the Philippines, however, two of such legislations—House Bill 5347 and Senate Bill 2910—failed to pass the previous Congress. We can only hope so much.
In the grand scheme of things, we should treat our mental health as we would our physical health. We should begin, if we haven’t yet, to take care of our psyche as it shapes who we are holistically. This, combined with the eradication of the stigma on mental disorders that has plagued society is one of the greatest gifts we could offer humanity—after all, helping is the most human thing there is.