What’s in a name?: Mental Health Stigma in the Philippines and How to Stop it

When I started showing symptoms of bipolar disorder II in the first few months of 2017, I was desperate for a lot of things. An understanding of what I was going through, a resolution for the conflict brewing inside me, and the support of people to help me push through with whatever this illness will transform me into. While I did seek help with a therapist, I felt that I still needed some form of support from my loved ones. I felt isolated, which was something that I honestly felt was fine a few years ago. A few years ago I was a strong, independent woman; I thought anyone was dispensable. Cut to a few years later and I’m disillusioned, alone, and struggling with something far bigger than I am.

So here I was, desperate for some form of connection to someone, deciding that I should tell my closest brother what I was experiencing. I told my mother about my illness but her support was not enough; I needed more. So I came up to his apartment and told him and his first response was anger. He told me I was selfish for thinking of killing myself and that other people have problems bigger than I have, and that I should learn to weather out these feelings and to strengthen myself.

Honestly, this was months ago, and we have long since resolved our conflict. He’s part of my support group now, and I have never been happier that I have someone like him who understands.

But why am I telling this story, you might wonder? It’s because my brother, and so many Filipinos, perpetrate stigma among those who suffer with their mental health. The dismissal, the anger, and disbelief that mental problems exist are what stigma represents. As such, it is one of the biggest hindrances to Filipinos understanding and supporting fellow Filipinos with mental health issues, and that it is this stigma that we should fight and eliminate.

Stigma, according to Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, Ph.D., is a “perceived negative attribute that causes someone to devalue or think less of the whole person”. Social stigma towards mental health issues is prevalent in the Philippines. For instance, in one of the noontime shows in the country, Eat Bulaga!, one of the main hosts, Joey De Leon, called out one of the contestants for having depression. He debased it by saying, “‘Yang depression na ‘yan, gawa-gawa lang ‘yan.” (Depression, that’s not real, it’s just a made up thing.) Considering Eat Bulaga! is a noontime show that has run for more than 30 years, it covers a wide demographic, and as such, it sends a message to a lot of Filipinos that indeed, depression is not real.

This, like so many messages towards depression and other mental health issues, signify how strong social stigma is in the Filipino community. Romeo Enriquez, Philippine Psychiatric Association (PPA) president, mentions, “If they have unusual symptoms, (they think) you are already crazy.” He adds, “For families who have not experienced any person in the family who is sick, when you talk about mental illness, it becomes the butt of jokes.”

It’s truly saddening how Filipinos view mental health problems in the Philippines. Instead of understanding and supporting, they ridicule and discriminate. But what can be done to resolve this problem? There must first be policies in place to assist Filipinos in understanding the complexity of mental illnesses, instead of simply claiming that people who suffer from them are “crazy”. The Mental Health Bill seeks to do just that; it aims to strengthen the rights of Filipinos who suffer from mental illnesses so that they are given the proper care and services and that they are not discriminated.

Aside from the Mental Health Bill, the organization Mental Health PH also aims to provide inclusivity to people suffering from mental health problems. This is by organizing events, creating Twitter discussions, and providing mental health care related content. One of their recent events is the Mental Health Blogathon. I was fortunate to attend said event, and there, the organizers and speakers urged the participants (bloggers, vloggers, photojournalists, and others) to speak up about mental health issues to not only provide a voice to those who can’t, but also to educate those who perpetuate social stigma that mental illnesses should not be dismissed or ridiculed.

Policies and organizations like these help reduce social stigma, but what are the other ways to do so? Here are some of the few ways individuals can fight mental health stigma:

  1. Educate one’s self
Source: https://www.theodysseyonline.com/stop-saying-educate-yourself

There are several resources about mental health. Simply researching online gives access to journals, articles, and other content that will inform about the types of mental illnesses and what can be done to help their victims. My brother researched a lot about chemical imbalances in the brain before he finally understood that my illness is not my design; it is the product of my body destroying me from the inside out. As such, like my brother, Filipinos too can utilize accessible resources to further understand the problem.

  1. Practice sensitivity
Source: http://awakeningcenter.blogspot.com/2014/02/youre-too-sensitive.html

Dealing with a family member, friend, or even acquaintance with a mental health problem can be difficult. It’s so easy to close one’s self off of understanding these victims, but one sure way to reduce the stigma is to be sensitive in dealing with or conversing with the one suffering. Simply saying you are there to listen and not say anything ridiculous or degrading is enough.

  1. Join mental health events or activities
Source: https://www.partnersbhm.org/be-involved/

There is no better way to understand than to participate. Joining mental health events and activities will shed light upon the issue and will also foster relations between the individuals and the victims of mental illnesses. As such, familiarity breeds not contempt, but awareness and acceptance.

  1. Utilize social media
Source: https://www.adlibbing.org/2018/02/12/4-lessons-from-top-social-media-publishers/

Using social media to raise awareness will not only inform people about the reality of mental illnesses, but also influence them to think they can be active participants in reducing the stigmatization of the issue too. Helping can be as easy as sharing posts about mental health from credible organizations and posting motivational messages.

  1. Be careful with language
Source: http://www.joegerstandt.com/2013/05/take-back-the-language/

Filipinos tend to throw words easily, like calling someone with a mental illness “crazy” or “useless”. They are not mindful that what they are saying can harm more than help. Simply paying attention to their words and calling out others who are discriminatory can go a long way in easing the social stigma.

The Philippines has a long way to go before mental health stigma is eliminated. There are still hurdles along the way. However, I believe we are making the right steps, from the Mental Health Bill being passed to mental health organizations creating events, to not-so-well-meaning hosts who surprisingly pave the way to understanding more about mental health – one thing’s for sure: mental health issues are in the Philippines’ limelight, and it’s one step closer to eliminating mental health stigma.


4 thoughts on “What’s in a name?: Mental Health Stigma in the Philippines and How to Stop it”

  1. I live in a Canadian city with a large immigrant population, and in my work as a mental health nurse I’ve encountered quite a few cultures that don’t necessarily recognize mental illness as being valid. Presenting mental illness as a brain disorder and a chemical imbalance seems to be one of the most effective ways of convincing people to take it more seriously. Great suggestions here!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m with you!

    Mental Health Awareness is just picking up in the philippines. I’m based in dubai and i can say that were behind in terms of educating the people. Glad to meet people here who use wordpressing to spread the love

    all the best!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! It’s an uphill battle for me as well; I don’t disclose my illness for fear of stigma. Hopefully that’ll ease up so I and others can be more open with our struggles. Thanks for the comment, Rhea!

      Liked by 1 person

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