Mental health, holistic health

By: Kay Rivera - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | October 12,2020 - 09:00 AM

World Mental Health Day was on Oct. 10, 2020. The World Health Organization’s goal for this year’s celebration was to increase investment in mental health, addressing and anticipating the increased need for mental health and psychosocial support that has resulted from the unique circumstances of the pandemic.

The way we experience the pandemic is highly individual, but we can safely say times have been rough for all of us. There is the disruption of our routines and community activities; the grief of losing loved ones to COVID-19, and the fear of getting infected, too; the burdens of essential workers in the pandemic; the challenges of working from home and online schooling; and the loss of businesses and employment. For those who were already receiving care from mental health professionals, the interruption of those services, as well as of incomes that make those services accessible, has been a challenge, too. Not to mention there’s today’s highly stressful level of political division, environmental change, natural disaster, and widespread poverty. Our brains are not equipped to be handling all of this at once. All these conspire to make 2020 a terrible year for mental health, but also an opportunity for improving this care, which is a call echoed by the Inquirer’s editorial on Saturday morning.

I ask pardon from the reader because my perspective on World Mental Health Day is more informed by a background as a patient and advocate rather than as a mental health professional. I agree that we must increase investment in mental health services. It is a relief that free mental health services are more available and accessible than they have previously been, though barriers continue to exist in accessing quality care for those with full-time jobs and lesser incomes. It is also gratifying that discussing mental health has become more normalized nowadays—so normalized, even, that presidential spokesperson Harry Roque even brought it into a defense of rehabilitation efforts in Manila Bay, claiming that white sand is good for Filipinos’ mental health.

And there’s the rub: that we can call for such an “investment” into mental health, while completely ignoring the holistic health of the Filipino in this precarious time.

As health advocates so often repeat, health is not merely the absence of disorders, but a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being. Thus mental health is not merely the absence of mental disorders, but a state in which persons are able to fulfill their potentials or ambitions, to express themselves, to cope with stress, and to be a contributing member of their communities. In this vein, adequate income and job security are part of mental health. The certainty of good governance and fair treatment is mental health. The provision of decent housing, food security, and equitable, accessible health care is mental health. To protect mental health is to protect all of these things. To expect Filipinos to “take care” of their mental health in a sociopolitical and economic environment that falls abysmally short in these areas is ridiculous.

Mental health professionals feel it, too. Colleagues in the profession have been improving ways to deliver the best possible care through online consultations, therapy sessions, seminars, and wellness classes. However, like any other health professionals in the Philippines, they cannot help the fact that, too often, they discharge patients into personal circumstances that contribute to poor mental health: low incomes, poor resources, high stress levels, plus the unceasing moral injury of watching the display of corruption, impunity, and incompetence that is Philippine politics. We’ve watched officials make a hash of the pandemic response at every level. If we Filipinos are sad, fearful or worried because it feels like things are spiraling out of control, who can blame us?

By all means, let us boost support for mental health services, which are sorely needed and which have been too long neglected and stigmatized. However, mental health doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Advocacy for it can never be separated from the need to address the myriad factors that contribute to worsening it.

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