Changing tracks, healing minds
TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - October 27, 2020 - 12:00am

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, as a society, we are more aware of our physical health now than ever before. Because of the existence of COVID-19 and the precautions we have had to take to protect ourselves and our families, we are constantly on the lookout for things that would have been negligible a year ago: the sound of coughing, the feel of a sore throat, whether or not we taste food as intensely today as we did yesterday. For those who leave their homes for work, we likely have our body temperature measured multiple times each day. We are aware of our bodies as never before.

But we are more than just our bodies, and not every ailment can be assessed with a thermometer. As National Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, it’s important to remind ourselves that “health” includes our minds and hearts as well.

When we speak about mental health, as with physical health, it’s a discussion that should amount to more than merely asking whether or not we are ill. It’s important to dissociate the idea of mental health from mental illness. When we speak of the body, it’s generally understood that even if you’re not suffering from a disease, that doesn’t mean that you are healthy, or that you are feeling no pain. Similarly, we don’t need to be suffering from mental illness to be suffering, or in need of help. During a time with so many potential sources of stress and anxiety, we should be assessing mental wellbeing as often as we take our temperature. How are we feeling? Where are we hurting? These are questions we must be asking, because the data reveal that the pandemic is placing many of us under heavy mental strain.

It’s been reported that around 3.6 million Filipinos are struggling with mental concerns during the pandemic, based on a national prevalence study conducted by the Department of Health. The National Center for Mental Health has noted a marked almost threefold increase in the number of calls to its Crisis Hotline. Many callers reported feelings of anxiety and sadness because of the effects of the pandemic, and there have been reports of an alarming increase in cases of suicide. The effects of COVID and the changes it wrought have not only endangered our bodies – they’ve burdened our minds as well. And many of us are breaking under the strain.

Yet many Filipinos won’t admit that. Worse, they won’t even allow themselves to consider the possibility.

There’s a reason why the DOH has been using the phrase “it’s OK not to be OK” to encourage people to be honest about their mental health difficulties. In our culture, admitting to mental issues still carries a stigma, sometimes being casually equated with insanity and other times with weakness. The fact that mental wounds are invisible makes it easy for them to be dismissed, even by the person suffering them.

“Kaya pa ba?”

“Kakayanin.”

And just like that, real pain and suffering is swept under the rug. Of course it is – after all, we want to be seen as strong, resilient, dependable. After all, if it’s “all in our heads” then we should be able to solve the problem “in our heads,” without the need to ask for outside help, without revealing our vulnerability.

But all it takes is a little thought to realize how wrongheaded that attitude is. After all, our “head,” our mind, is what rules our body – and it is not something we can completely control. Just think about how difficult it is to get our brains not to do something: not to feel nostalgia when arriving at a familiar place, not to think of the lyrics when we hear a favorite tune. Our mind can be our greatest resource... but it can just as easily be our prison.

Numerous studies have shown that humans, for all our intelligence, are still  creatures of habit. We evolved this way out of efficiency – habits allow us to do routine things more easily, saving us energy in the process. But this also means that once we fall into a habit – even one that is self-destructive – it is very difficult to break out of it. And it’s not something most of us can do by simply deciding to stop, and scientists have been consistent that “[i]f you just try and say, ‘I’m going to use will power to make this behavior go away,’ it’s not going to work.”

Add to this the fact that our brains are also predisposed towards negative things (the so-called Negativity Bias/Effect) and it’s easy to see how our anxieties, our fears, our insecurities can become a habit that locks us into a downward spiral of helplessness or self-loathing.

Again: this is not a sign of weakness. This is not something to hide from the world or be ashamed of. This is a natural part of being a human being.

Having mental health issues is natural. Needing the help of other people to dig ourselves out of a rut is natural.

Think of your mind as a train and a habit as a circular track. No matter how powerful the engine of the train is, it will continue moving around in a circle because that’s what it was designed to do. To break out of it requires outside assistance – someone to pull the lever, to flip the railroad switch and allow the train to shift to a different track.

We need to be honest if we need someone to flip that switch. And we should be ready and willing to do the same for others, without judgment. So please, ask yourself:

Am I OK?

Kaya ko pa ba?

If not, or if you feel you could use some help, please – reach out: to your family, your friends, to professionals who know how to listen.

You matter.

The National Center for Mental Health (NCMH) Crisis Hotline provides assistance on a 24 hours, seven days a week basis for free to individuals with mental health problems, especially those who are in crisis and at risk of committing suicide:

1553 (Luzon toll-free landline); 0917-899-8727; (02)7-989-8727

They are also on Facebook and Messenger: facebook.com/ncmhcrisishotline/

For remote consultation for mental health issues: ncmh.gov.ph/index.php/online-services#consult

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