Hotline to hope
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - August 21, 2019 - 12:00am

Chances are you know someone who committed suicide.

I’ve known several since my teenage years, although in cases of drug overdose, it was not easy to tell the accidental from intentional death – unless the victim wrote or talked about a death wish.

One day a dear friend sat at a table, staring into space, and then keeled over, hitting his head on the floor. His distraught loved ones didn’t bother finding out if he died of the head wound or the drug overdose, or if he had wanted to die.

Youths seem to be particularly vulnerable, and it’s tough to tell when normal teenage angst has progressed dangerously to a readiness for self-inflicted lethal violence.

Last Sunday, the body of a 16-year-old boy was found floating near a shipyard in Mandaue City. CCTV footage showed the student athlete arriving on a motorcycle and jumping off a bridge. Hours later, police prevented a 16-year-old girl from doing the same thing.

There are, in the words of a mother who lost her daughter to suicide, “smiling depressives.”

While I was in college, one of the students drowned herself during a beach outing with friends. She had such a sweet, sunny disposition and I admired her literary works. I thought all that goodness and light inspired her boyfriend, already gaining fame at the time as an accomplished musician while still studying at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, to compose and play hauntingly beautiful music.

But who knows what demons consume a young mind?

*      *      *

Some groups think it can help to have a sympathetic stranger to whom a troubled soul can unburden one’s woes.

Jean Goulbourn has gained renown not just for being one of the country’s prominent apparel designers, but also for helping set up Hopeline – a hotline whose principal mission is suicide prevention.

Hopeline was launched in September 2013 by the Department of Health (DOH) in cooperation with the World Health Organization and Natasha Goulbourn Foundation, coinciding with National Suicide Prevention Awareness Day.

Natasha is Jean’s daughter, an accessories designer who died in Hong Kong in 2002 at age 27 after taking too much of a strong medication to battle depression, which was prescribed by a new psychiatrist she was consulting in the administrative region.

Jean, the creative mind behind Silk Cocoon, says Natasha was a smiling depressive.

But there must have been some telltale signs that Natasha needed more help. Jean thought about this and said some possible signs were the loss of sleep and appetite.

People say that there is nothing more painful than losing one’s child. After Natasha’s death, Jean wrote in The STAR’s Lifestyle section: “No, God, no! I can’t accept that Tasha’s gone. Please give me closure. Give me signs. Allow her to talk to me. Do You exist? Are You really there? How could You let it happen? Why call her home to You at her prime? Why lend her to me for so short a time?”

Words, of course, are never enough to ease a mother’s grief. Jean decided to set up the foundation, to help others going through the same suffering as her daughter.

The DOH, in a sign that it recognized the gravity of the problem, later partnered with the foundation. Jean has lost count of the people who have sought help from the foundation and Hopeline. 

*      *      *

Awareness of depression and suicide has increased dramatically in recent years. Around the world, reports of celebrities as well as children killing themselves have made governments consider suicide a serious public health problem calling for an efficient response.

Social media, which can make people more connected to the world, has also become an instrument for the kind of bullying that has driven youths to depression and suicide.

As events in recent years have shown, bullying is also a problem in the Philippines. But youths aren’t the only ones who suffer from depression and harbor thoughts of suicide. Mental health problems can surface at all stages of life.

One hindrance to dealing with the problem is the perception, still prevalent in this country, that mental health problems are something to be ashamed of or even laughed about. Politicians see it as a kiss of death to have a record as a psychiatric patient.

Even the National Center for Mental Health (NCMH) has not completely shaken off the derisive reference to it as “saykopatik” and its patients as “saykatok.”

To remove the stigma, the government is considering proposals to turn the “mental hospital” into a general hospital, with a mental health unit to attend to such cases.

*      *      *

This is one of the reforms being considered following the approval of Republic Act 11036, the National Mental Health Act, in June 2018. The implementing rules for RA 11036 were signed earlier this year.

With the approval of RA 11036, however, the DOH will be setting up its own suicide prevention hotline. And come October, it will be cutting off its lifeline to Hopeline.

This is in fact already an extension; the cutoff was supposed to be in June. Jean is hoping that this can be further extended at least until the end of the year. Health Secretary Francisco Duque, however, recently told “The Chiefs” on Cignal TV / One News that this is no longer possible as the DOH sets up its own hotline.

While trying to keep Hopeline going, Jean continues to study mental health issues, notably depression and suicide. She is intrigued by research indicating that a bacteria might be linked to depression.

If this is scientifically established, she told The Chiefs in another interview, medication can be developed to kill the bacteria.

Health professionals caution that the research is still in such a preliminary stage and a cure, if there really is such an organism that causes depression, is still a long way off.

They point out that there are already drugs available for dealing with depression, and health professionals want to emphasize that there’s nothing wrong with seeking medical help.

They note, however, that when a person with mental health problems lands in the hospital, the affliction is usually already in an advanced stage.

Before reaching this stage, counseling – or simply having a shoulder to cry on – can perish morbid thoughts of ending one’s life. This is the mission of Hopeline … if it can continue its existence.

Hopeline hotlines: (02) 804-HOPE (4673), 0917 558 HOPE (4673) and 2919 (toll-free number for Globe and TM subscribers).

NCMH hotlines: 0917-899-USAP (8727) ?0917-989-8727

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