CEBU City—Famous for its spectacular beaches, historical sites, great food and a warm and hospitable people, the province of Cebu sadly also has the highest reported rates of attempted and completed suicide in the country.
“Perhaps it’s also because we have a better reporting system,” says Dr. Rene Obra, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center (VSMMC) in Cebu City. “On a monthly basis, we have an average of more than 30 referrals. The highest number comes from the 15-24 age group, followed by those in the above age 75-years-old age group.”
Depression is a reality in the elderly, too—not surprising for a country that has the highest incidence of depression in Southeast Asia. It’s not really more fun in the Philippines when you suffer from this condition in which you feel very sad, hopeless, and unimportant.
The Natasha Goulbourn Foundation, in partnership with Globe and the VSMMC, recently launched Hopelines, a 24/7 suicide prevention and emotional crisis line in Cebu. Denver (not his real name), one of the trained responders, says that, on any given day, they receive an average of 12-17 calls.
“They are mostly high school students, or wives of overseas Filipino workers looking for someone to talk to because they are depressed,” he points out. The calls come from all over the Visayas and Mindanao, and callers are often addressed in the native dialect (Cebuano).
“Occasionally we get calls from Bacolod and Iloilo, or from Leyte,” says Denver. Because the dialect is different, it can be a challenge. Hopefully we will be able to train a few responders who can speak in other dialects, as well.”
Relationships are often the cause for depression among teens, but bullying comes a close second. Dr. Obra relates the recent tragedy early this year of a 10-year-old boy and his best-buddy cousin, who hung themselves from a tree. One of the boys had been badly bullied in school, and his cousin, who was his best friend, commiserated with him. They did not survive.
Dr. Obra says there seems to be a higher awareness now in metro Cebu of depression, suicide and other mental health issues, but there is still quite a long way to go, and many people to reach out to in the region. “There are only 26 psychiatrists in the entire Cebu province,” he says, “only a little over 500 for the entire country, and half of them are in NCR. Some provinces in Mindanao have only one or two.”
There are six schools of medicine in Cebu, but only VSMMC has a training program for psychiatry. “We have a two-story building to house our mental health patients,” says Dr. Obra, “but we have only 60 beds, and there are periods when we have 200 patients at one time. Where do we put them? How do we take care of them?”
Next week, the Philippines is hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meetings; and the commitment to the Apec Roadmap to Promote Mental Wellness in a Healthy Asia-Pacific (2014-2020) will be highlighted.
The roadmap complements the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Mental Health Action Plan and its 2020 timeline. Apec member economies share the WHO Action Plan’s vision of a world in which mental health is valued, promoted and protected.
The roadmap outlines a series of activities for Apec member economies and stakeholders to achieve the goals by 2020.
And yet, where are we?
We have a Mental Health Act that cannot be passed by Congress, and has been revised, at last count, 22 times. It has been languishing for two years now, and there are only four years to fulfill that roadmap to mental health wellness.
Meanwhile, suicide numbers continue to rise and natural disasters continue to happen, burdening survivors and responders with mental health issues.
Seventy-five percent of the world’s population are given protection and health promotion through mental health legislation. But the Philippines remains without a mental health bill, despite rising mental health problems. Stress from traffic, disasters and poverty cuts across different classes, and is enough to send even the healthiest individual into a tailspin!
There remains no bill despite our commitment to international covenants (we are a signatory of that roadmap to mental wellness), and in spite of our constitutional declaration on the protection of the rights for all.
Cebu is a microcosm of our nation’s attitude and view towards mental health. Our systems and specialists in the field are overburdened, and there are many who need our help.
Having a mental health condition is serious business, and nothing to be ashamed of. Although treatment will not always promise a cure, it can help those who suffer become better functioning and productive members of the community.
We need to examine our own attitudes and look into ourselves, both as individual citizens, and as legislators. The person with a mental health issue is just as deserving, or perhaps even more so, of compassion and understanding as the patient with cancer, hypertension or diabetes.
The book of Proverbs is very explicit on this: “Speak for the people who cannot speak for themselves. Protect the rights of all who are hopeless.”
If legislation continues to fail us, the next best thing is for public-private partnerships to come to the aid of those who need a voice, of those who need our protection the most.
For information and help on depression, and suicide, call HOPELINE at 0917-5584673, or for Globe and TM subscribers, call 2919.