It’s a sad reality that in the Philippines, there’s an undeniable stigma with families whose one or more members are suspected to be suffering from mental illness. Most are hesitant to go to a psychiatrist for consultation because once the people around them find out about it, there’s a tendency to be looked at differently — to be considered not normal.
This, according to Edmundo Isidro, president of Open Minds Foundation, is a crucial factor why mental health continues to be a growing problem in the country. “Stigma against mental illness can only be addressed by promoting education and awareness about it among individuals, families and communities,” Isidro said.
For people suffering from mental health problems, the social stigma attached to their illness can make it even harder to recover. Their conditions are also made worse with the discrimination they experience not just from the society but from their families and friends as well. Recognizing this, Open Minds Foundation seeks to have relatives and friends of mentally ill patients gain a deeper understanding of mental illnesses, as well as help and train them to find ways to cope. The support group’s objectives also complement other private efforts, such as an advocacy program dubbed as the “Patient’s Equity to Support ‘Out-of-Pocket Expense’ Value” (PESO Value). Funded by Johnson & Johnson (Philippines), Inc., (JJPI), it seeks to develop models of healthcare financing including for mental illness.
Since 2002, Open Minds Foundation has been hosting a forum each month at the Quezon City General Hospital, wherein they invite a psychiatrist to talk about mental illness on specific topics. Their participants, composed of 30 to 40 patients and caregivers, learn more about schizophrenia, depression, bipolar, anxiety, among others. In addition, the support group also has a regular radio program to reach out to more mental ill patients and their families, as well as a call center that provides a directory of psychiatrists. Through these efforts, they hope to make the public aware that mental illness is a disease that is curable and can be managed, Isidro said.
Consulting a psychiatrist is what saved the life of a 36-year-old mental patient diagnosed with schizophrenia, whose name will not be divulged for personal reasons. According to his mother, who also wishes to remain anonymous, she sought help for her son when he was in his early 20s, after he manifested unusual behavior, such as having difficulty in sleeping, shaving his hair and physically hurting himself and other people. The family could not pinpoint the exact reason that triggered the mental illness, but they suspect it was because of the high expectations set on him as the eldest, or the stress that he experienced from work. Prior to his diagnosis, the patient was working as a mechanic in one of the country’s leading automotive companies.
Stress was also one of the factors that led to the bipolar disorder of a 46-year-old mentally ill patient, who will also not be named. A widow with four sons, she believes her condition started as early as in her 20s, when she worked as an all-around maid for her relative. Over fatigue took a toll not only on her physical health but on her mental well-being as well, which was worsened by her marital problems. These led her to be depressed, and after going to the hospital for her goiter, she was recommended to seek the help of a psychiatrist. According to her, she displayed odd behavior, such as being too talkative.
Isidro confirmed that stress could be one of the triggers of mental illness. In fact, there is an upsurge of mental illness because of work schedules and unhealthy lifestyles, according to him. He reiterated, however, the importance of consulting a psychiatrist or a doctor to correct their mental health. In both cases, the two patients are taking medications to stabilize their conditions, upon the recommendation of their doctors. While the cost is considerably expensive, they opt for quality medicines to ensure efficacy, so they only take it once a day.
More than the financial support for hospital confinement or to buy medicines, mental ill patients need the utmost understanding of their families who usually are their caregivers. In the case of the 46-year-old bipolar, it took a long time for her family to accept her condition, mostly because they were embarrassed. The 36-year-old schizophrenic, on the other hand, do not experience the empathy of his friends, who do not understand his situation.
Support groups such as Open Minds Foundation and efforts such as the PESO VALUE aim to free mentally ill patients from the social stigma and discrimination, which can trap them in a cycle of illness. With the help of various advocacy programs focused on mental illness, patients not only have higher chances of managing their mental health, but of recovering fully.