A priority for all

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

Yesterday was World Mental Health Day and the theme for this year is “Making Mental Health & Well-Being for All a Global Priority” – certainly a timely reminder. While many might have considered the COVID-19 pandemic as over, there are still others who are going through some struggles and are experiencing some traumas brought about by the pandemic and as our common response to it is shifting towards going “back to normal,” it is important to be sensitive to those whose mental health make it difficult for them to keep up with the changes.

As more and more people have put COVID-19 behind them, those who are experiencing emotional difficulties in moving forward hide their wounds, their traumas, their struggles. And the more people hide their suffering, the easier it is for others to do the same. No one wants to be the downer, the one who brings down the mood and spoils everyone’s fun. As a result, no one speaks up, and no one gets the help that they need. This might be because of the fear of being criticized as weak, labeled as weird or worse – stigmatized as insane. And so many of us carry our burdens in silence and create a culture that teaches others that to bear things in silence is the norm.

Changing that status quo is a necessary task which will involve a tremendous amount of work. But as the theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day reminds us, this is work that should be a priority. We should support efforts to establish a Mental Health and Well-Being Program as well as the passage of the Basic Education Mental Health and Well-Being Promotion Act to help alleviate the negative mental health effects of the pandemic by institutionalizing a program that will provide mental health services and other emotional and developmental programs in all public and private basic education schools, as well as providing for the creation of more plantilla positions for school guidance councilors.

But when we say that mental health should be a global priority, we mean it should be a priority for everyone, not just for governments. It should be a priority in schools – one can only hope that, should the Basic Education Mental Health and Well-Being Promotion Act be passed, an increase in trained staff will allow schools to provide better support for the mental health of their students, at a location that is the source of many of the stressors in the lives of young people.

For adults, workplaces are the locus points for many stressors, and employers should be taught to view their employees as human beings rather than resources, or numbers on a spreadsheet. Workplaces should normalize the practice of inquiring as to the mental health of employees, putting into practice breaks that allow for mental health recovery and accepting mental health as a valid reason for sick leaves.

The need for prioritization is not only an external matter but an internal one to us as well. Mental health should also be a priority for our own selves, and we should do what we can to take a breath, to assess and reevaluate where we are mentally and how we are feeling. In the age of social media, we must always remind ourselves that what people present of themselves online is carefully curated and never the whole story, or else the pressure we feel to compete, participate or confirm can become overwhelming. Let us go one step further – even if all these posts are true, none of that invalidates any pain or trauma that we find ourselves experiencing, none of that makes us failures. None of that means we have to maintain a façade of normalcy instead of being true to our pain and seeking the help we need.

As many have said before me, it’s OK not to be OK. More than OK, it is natural and expected – the WHO director general once  mentioned that the pandemic has likely caused more “mass trauma” than World War II. The scars from that war lasted a lifetime for the majority of those that survived it, and it would not be surprising if the COVID-19 pandemic has the same effect on some people, particularly given that the virus is still very much a threat.

So just as we ask our government, our schools and our employers to make of our mental health a priority, we must try to do the same for ourselves. It can and will be hard – there always seems to be more work to be done, more discord to untangle, more bills to pay, more messes to clean. In a world with a 24/7 news cycle, with social media bombarding us with other people’s lives unceasingly, we need to take control of how much we expose ourselves to.

We need to take a look at our environment, at how it could be affecting us inside. If we spend our days immersed in toxicity and negativity, that can stick to the soul. Hatred and despair can narrow our vision and make us contribute to the problem instead of the solution – one more person drowning instead of a helping hand. We need to stop waiting for the perfect moment to take a break, and simply ask ourselves if we need one. Better yet, ask if a break would significantly improve our mental state (because I know how easy it is to rationalize against our “needing” anything) and use that as our cue to have one.

You matter, your pain matters, your words matter. To make a better, kinder world, we must demand that mental health be taken seriously and be made a priority – by institutions, by other people and by ourselves.

For those who may need immediate help and find themselves isolated from friends and family, the National Center for Mental Health Crisis Hotline can be contacted via the following:

1553 (Luzon toll-free landline); 0917-899-USAP (Globe); 0908-639-2672 (SMART/Sun/TNT)

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

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