Mental wellness

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

A once bubbly, Zumba-loving woman I know began suffering from depression shortly before the start of the coronavirus crisis.

Her husband, the family’s main breadwinner, was stricken with cancer while working overseas and had to return home. Their children are earning barely enough to make ends meet. These days the woman rarely goes out of her house, telling friends she is depressed.

With the pandemic worsening their suffering, the woman has stopped even taking calls or responding to text messages. Her friends are worried that she might attempt suicide.

One thing this pandemic has done is highlight the importance of mental health. Thanks to pop culture creations such as the hit South Korean series on Netflix, there is also growing awareness that, as the series title declares, it’s OK to not be OK.

And once you acknowledge your mental distress, it’s OK to seek help. Perhaps the Zumba woman will do this.

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Psychology was one of my favorite subjects in college. And one of my takeaways from the lessons is that if you consider the list of internationally identified mental and behavioral disorders, all of us, bar none, will have some kind of psychological affliction.

What matters is the degree of disorder, and how we cope with them. If the distress is deep enough to impair normal functions, and of course if it poses a threat to the afflicted and those around him or her, intervention is needed.

Operators of both state-run and privately managed mental health assistance programs have reported a spike in calls for help in the time of COVID.

During the pandemic, the Department of Health puts the number of the mentally distressed at 3.6 million, based on its latest national prevelance survey. But the DOH thinks the figure could be much higher, since the study covered only three conditions: mental, neurological and substance use disorders.

The country’s mental health care capacity, unfortunately, is unprepared for the surge in SOS messages.

According to the US National Center for Biotechnology Information, there are only 700 psychiatrists in the Philippines, and 1,000 mental health nurses. Dr. Joan Mae Rifareal of the Philippine Psychiatric Association says their group has about 500 members.

Compliance with Republic Act 11036 or the Mental Health Act of 2018 has been hampered by the lack of qualified people who can provide psychological services before mental distress deteriorates into something requiring hospital intervention.

Fashion designer Jean Goulbourn, whose foundation named after her late daughter Natasha has been running the suicide prevention hotline called Hopeline, is wishing for government subsidy, and that more private companies will be willing to invest in the foundation’s services to promote mental wellness in the workplace.

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Mental health workers have received reports of stress arising from being forced to stay at home especially among those whose family relations are fraught with conflict. Such situations, unfortunately, are not uncommon in our country. The lockdowns have exacerbated domestic abuse.

Even among those blessed with healthy, peaceful home environments, the lockdowns and need for physical distancing have been stressful. We’ve been told that for good health, humans must have physical contact at least once a day with other humans, or at least with other warm-blooded creatures – the reason why having dogs or cats can be therapeutic.

These days, however, we worry even about infecting our pets with coronavirus. Laughter has disappeared from many workplaces. Even music seems to have stopped. It was one of the striking features of the pandemic when the lockdowns started: driving home from work at night, the quiet was like the silence of the grave.

Worried that some of my neighbors might be going through COVID-related suffering or the worst possible tragedy, I stopped playing my musical instruments for over six months. It was only a few weeks ago, after we were eased back to general community quarantine, that I resumed playing the guitar; the piano, which is louder, remains unused.

It’s good to strum again, and to exercise my vocal cords. As long as no one is threatening to sue you for noise pollution or human rights violation, it’s greatly de-stressing to be able to play and sing again, from new pop hits like Camila Cabello’s “Liar” to the oldies unlisted in videokes like Chuck Mangione and Esther Satterfield’s “Look to the Children.”

With so much death and sickness around us these days, revisiting the old songs is also part of my contemplation of mortality.

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Speaking of videoke, when the government announced a ban on karaoke during blended learning period (meaning much of the daylight hours), a common reaction I heard was, well, who sings karaoke during regular working hours anyway?

The answer is, people cooped up at home by the COVID lockdowns – whether out of a job and de-stressing, or taking a break while working from home.

And in the informal settlements, hole-in-the-wall videoke joints, which also rent out karaoke machines for home use, actually operate almost around the clock.

The operators lamented the loss of their income. But because they are surrounded by neighborhood children struggling to understand online lessons above the din of human conversation, barking dogs and passing vehicles, they also understand the students’ need for less noise.

That daytime videoke had to be banned, however, shows how much Pinoys love singing. We must be the only country in the world where sales clerks sing for a live demo of videoke machines being sold in department stores and supermarkets.

For us Pinoys, singing is as therapeutic as laughter. This is one of the saddest aspects of this awful pandemic: it took the laughter and music out of our world. It sucked the joy out of life.

When the pandemic is getting you down, try turning to music. Psychiatrists have said it’s good for mental health. Just make sure the sound doesn’t drive your neighbors up the wall.

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