No joking matter
Philippine Daily Inquirer
October 12, 2017 at 5:32 am

Last week, comedian and TV host Joey de Leon described feeling depressed as a mere affectation meant to call attention to one’s self.

Gawa-gawa lang, a made-up condition best ignored rather than encouraged or supported, he said.

Expectedly, his dismissive remarks earned him so much bashing on social media that he was forced to make a public apology.

De Leon’s dangerous misrepresentation of depression focused attention on this serious mental health issue and revealed just how little is known about it. And popular media have played a major role in foisting misconceptions and stereotypes about those afflicted.

Depression is often met with skepticism, amusement, or exasperation, as though the sufferer was just being difficult and could will it away.

Others see it as a consequence of “having it all” among the rich and bored, or a mere chemical imbalance that prescription medication can remedy.

But like drug addiction, depression is a health problem that needs treatment and support. It is not a sign of weakness, or of a negative personality.

While it’s natural for people to have episodes of sadness, clinical depression or major depressive disorder (MDD) is a lingering malaise that can last up to two weeks and is severe enough to disrupt daily activities.

According to his parents, recent EJK victim Carl Arnaiz, who used to be an exemplary student, dropped out of school because of depression.

Others who suffer from depression describe it as like having a big black dog following them around, impossible to shake off. It’s like living under a cloud of hopelessness and despair, to the point of losing interest in normal activities. In fact, MDD can become so severe that some sufferers see suicide as the only way out, as did the actor Robin Williams.

MDD’s symptoms could include fatigue, loss of energy almost every day, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, indecisiveness and impaired concentration, inability to sleep or oversleeping, restlessness, recurring thoughts of death or suicide, and significant weight loss.

And Filipinos, who take pride in being described as among the happiest people in the world, are not exempt from this mental health problem.

According to the National Statistics Office, mental health illnesses are the third most common forms of morbidity among Filipinos. In the same 2014 NSO study, 88 cases of mental health problems were reported for every 100,000 Filipinos.

The new Philippine Health Information System on Mental Health (PHIS-MH) reported that schizophrenia is the top mental health problem in the Philippines.

Others in the list are depression and anxiety disorder. Suicide is becoming a major concern as well, with 2,558 Filipinos committing suicide in 2012, 2,009 of them males.

The numbers can easily be a fraction of actual cases, as mental health issues tend to be underreported in the Philippines because of the accompanying shame and stigma, the World Health Organization (WHO) has observed.

To be sure, there are private organizations that promote public awareness of the condition and serve as support groups, among them the Natasha Goulbourn Foundation (named after the daughter of fashion designer Jeanne Goulbourn, who suffered from depression and committed suicide).

It is working with the government to establish anti-suicide measures, including a 24/7 counseling hotline called Hopeline.

Depression is bound to be a more serious problem than people realize, considering the number of natural and manmade disasters and tragedies that regularly strike the country, like Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in 2013, the Bohol quake, the ongoing Marawi crisis, etc.

Knowing how people need support and help during this time, WHO has trained 300 community workers and health professionals to provide psychological care and tackle trauma-related conditions as well as depression.

In Congress, Sen. Risa Hontiveros’ Mental Health Act of 2016, aims to provide mental health services in regional, provincial, and tertiary level hospitals, and hopefully down to the barangays.

One in five adult Filipinos suffer from mental or psychiatric disorder, with the number of suicide cases in the country steadily rising from 1992 to 2012, the senator noted.

Given the statistics and the yet meager response from the government, depression and other mental health problems are certainly not a joking matter.

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