Protecting Philippine Mental Health


Sen. Angara was the longest serving senator in the post-EDSA Senate. Described by the late President Corazon Aquino as “the face of decent Philippine politics abroad,” he is also considered by many as the father of healthcare for authoring the National Health Insurance Act (PhilHealth) and the Senior Citizens Act, among the many landmark laws he has authored.

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The election of a new administration in 2016 came with positive developments for mental health in the Philippines.

In September, newly appointed Secretary of Health Paulyn Ubial launched the HOPELINE project, a 24-7 phone-based counseling service for depression and suicide prevention under the Department of Health (DOH). The initiative would be implemented in partnership with the Natasha Goulbourn Foundation and supported by Globe Telecom, having already been pilot-tested a year earlier in Cebu.

A month later, Secretary Ubial signed an administrative order establishing a comprehensive framework on how the DOH’s mental health program will be implemented at all levels nationwide—including rural health units and barangay health centers. Prior to the AO’s signing, the DOH’s initiatives for mental health were merely conducted on a limited, localized basis.

By the end of the year, President Duterte signed into law the 2017 national budget, allocating at least PhP 220 million for the DOH’s mental health program—around six times more than the PhP 36 million allocated in 2016.

Such developments are definitely welcome, especially since a 2011 World Health Organization (WHO) study estimated that up 4.5 million Filipinos were clinically depressed—marking the highest incidence of the disorder in Southeast Asia.

This number may be grossly understated however, given the WHO also found that only one out of three sufferers will actually go to a specialist for treatment—as the second simply opts out from receiving treatment, while the third remains unaware of his condition.

Many cases could easily go undiagnosed given that according to the Philippine Psychiatric Association (PPA), there are only five qualified psychiatrists for every 10 million Filipinos. The problem is only exacerbated by the lack of adequate mental health treatment facilities, and more significantly, the widespread stigma over such illnesses.

These make it imperative that a Mental Health Act be enacted as swiftly as possible, to ensure that government formulates, implements and continuously improves upon a nationwide mental health policy.

Such law must protect the rights of sufferers of mental illnesses, especially when many Filipino communities are ill-prepared and un-socialized, if not entirely incapable, of treating them properly.

In November 2014, The Guardian released a video of how social workers discovered in a Northern Cebu town several mentally ill individuals chained up or caged away from the rest of their community in the aftermath of Supertyphoon Yolanda. It appeared their families knew no other recourse, unaware that treatment is actually available.

Having a Mental Health Act in place would be a good step towards mainstreaming mental health as a public health issue, hopefully preventing future abuses of the mentally ill and promoting the general well-being of all Filipinos.